Could you tell us your background and how you ended up being at SLS16?
I’m all the way from Ireland. I’m a 26 year old guy and I’m working as a doctor over back home currently rotating through three different placements. I’m hoping in August time to go into seminary, so that is the next step I’m looking to make.
I got to know a bunch of really good people back home who are very much into their faith as well. One of them being a priest called Fr. James. He is a young priest who has been ordained maybe a few years from Derry. He is a man who has real passion to truly get the Gospel back very much into the center of people’s lives.
I’m sure in the States it’s no different than in Ireland; actually you might be ahead of us in a certain sense. Back home, the Christian heritage and the Christian life has very much fallen asleep in many hearts and in many homes to put it mildly . But that being said, there are great signs of a new Spring coming at home. Through people that I have gotten to know and the passion that they have, it is very inspiring. This gentleman, Fr. James, is the thing that is bringing me to talk to you today.
Fr. James has some contact in Denver, a man who must have Irish roots as far as I know and has very much a passion for the faith himself. Another guy from Derry who is a bit older, but a great witness to Christ and the faith, set the two of them up back in about April time. He said, ‘Would you be interested in coming over?” and so Fr. James did. He hopped on a plane with the intention of having this guy show him a few of the apostolates they got going on in the States that are supporting the New Evangelization.
He was deeply impressed with all that was going on over here. There were a few different groups, but in particular FOCUS. Just its level of impact for one, but joyful seriousness about delivering the message of Christ and clear success it has had. Purely to look from a worldly point of view and talk numbers… as far as I know the story, they started off with two part time staff and 20 volunteers and now they have conferences with ten thousand strong. In the case of under 20 years, they are doing something right!
So, like I said, he got to meet a few of the people in leadership roles over here in America. And then he came back to us and told us. He deeply impressed us with how powerful the Spirit has been working over here. We have people at home definitely with that heart and desire, but we haven’t taken that step that you guys have to make a real apostolate and begin turning the tide.
From there, we were just getting on with our own thing, and Fr. James made arrangements to have a group of FOCUS missionaries/students come over to his parish in July just before we were heading to Fatima. Twenty of them came over and the main thrust of their trip to Ireland was that they were giving a mission in Gallaway. But somehow Fr. James managed to hijack them his direction for at least a couple of days. A few of us, mostly my age in our early to mid-twenties, spread the word that they were coming over and this would be great thing for people in Northern Ireland who were passionate for Christ. There are many little fires being lit across the country; just come to this and meet the missionaries, learn what they do and how they operate.
When they came, there were maybe forty or fifty of us and twenty of them. They ran a parish mission out there for us and it was wonderful to spend time with them, watching how they operate and what makes them tick. It was fantastic! Nearly what was better though, was the strong friendships that almost instantaneously were forged. We only had, I reckon, 24-48 hours with these people in our company, but it felt like you were meeting people you’d known all your life. I think that is part of the beauty of what it means to be truly Christian, that those truly alive in Christ are your family as soon as you meet them. You already have a foundation stone in your life and that is the exact same in their life. I guess like a beautiful garden you just blend together when you come together. I think the feeling was mutual; I’d like to hope anyway that they enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs.
I was making a joke to a few of my friends afterward, friends who’ve been my friends all my life, but who aren’t practicing their faith, who have fallen under the secular spell. I said, FOCUS seemed to have a crafty way of evangelization in that more or less all the ladies they brought over were like models, just absolute beautiful. They wouldn’t have any trouble recruiting around Ireland. In jest, of course! They were great people.
I think that what resounded for them was we were able to bring them to a couple different places. The next day after the mission, a few of us stayed on and we all went down to a mass rock down in Donegal. I don’t know if you know much about mass rocks, but they date back to the persecutions of the Church when the faith was very much on the down and out. We might think we have it tough now, because we’re not the flavor of the month, but when you think about it, for our ancestors – certainly my ancestors in Ireland – it was life or death. For many of the priests too, because to be a priest in Ireland in that time was death, to be affiliated with or harboring a priest meant death for your family as well, never mind the suffering of poverty that was going on and famine.
So we took them one of them mass rocks in Donegal which was a beautiful place. I had never actually been to the place we went to. We tried to make it as authentic of an experience as possible for them. We made this agreement when we get into the park where we can park the cars – which is a good half a mile walk into the woods to get to the mass rock – we said we’d go in silence and in single file just like they used to back then to minimize attention and unwanted eyes. So we did that and had mass at this mass rock. I think they were deeply impressed by, I suppose, the backstory that we have, certainly in Ireland and indeed many European countries of the faith being lived out through the generations. That sang to their hearts and it did to mine as well.
From there we just went on and experienced the natural beauty of the area. I left feeling I had twenty or thirty more brothers and sisters. It was a true gift, it really was. A wonderful way to start your pilgrimage preparation going on to Fatima with that already in the tank.
That came and went. We exchanged a few contacts, but I’m a busy man with work and I’m sure their busy guys with what they’re doing over here so you don’t really keep in contact. But they were always in my heart. And then, Fr. James the mover and shaker, contacted us to say, “Would you be interested in coming over to SLS?” I asked, “What the heck is SLS?” He told us all about us and I said, “Sign me up!” There was a benefactor as well, if it could be any better. Some kind gentleman or lady more or less funded the trip for a lot of us. There are sixteen of us here and a good few of us definitely are under the benefactors charge. That made it an absolute no brainer if you know what I mean.
Here I am and I just gotta say, I’m totally pulled over by the whole experience. It is just so impressive to see so many people my age united around Christ. You can just think back to Gospel times nearly when He was moving through Galilee. People were buzzing about Him and following this man who was preaching with authority, healing people, and sending them out to do the same. That’s more or less what is happening here and it is just phenomenal to be a part of that. To think that maybe in some way, we’re like the Atlantic torch that is being lit now. Sixteen isn’t that far off from the number that they had at the start when FOCUS kicked off. Who knows where the Spirit is flowing at all, but I am extremely, extremely privileged to be part of that.
Could you tell me more about Fr. James?
He’s a good friend. I met him through a group called Youth 2000. I would have heard of him before that because he is such a – he would kick my butt if he heard me giving him all this praise – but really truly, he stands for Christ and not for himself. That shows that he is just really passionate to get things going. And that draws in young people, who clearly have found Christ and want the same thing to happen for others.
So I met him through Youth 2000 which is not widely unlike FOCUS. It was been built around World Youth Day and it’s fairly represented in most countries around the world. It is a movement that is trying to get young people to encounter and experience Christ and it would certainly be a huge part in my Genesis moment with Christ. I think Fr. James was preaching at one of the events and I got to chat to him after that. I just kept contact with him after that. Ireland is a small place, Northern Ireland in particular. You’re it takes but 2 or 3 hours to drive from one side to the other, not like you Americans! It is a community that is easily kept in touch.
Could you describe your encounter with Christ?
It would be negligent of me to not pay real homage to my family. Yes, I had a wonderful encounter with Christ where I really met Him, but the ground work was that I had a good upbringing from what my parents gave me and my brothers. They were just normal people, just normal Catholics. Both cradle Catholics yes, but definitely believe in Christ and raised their children to trust the Church and live the sacraments.
Now, the pressures of the secular world definitely come in and take their toll. I know for my brothers maybe they’re going about it a longer route; that’s fine, Christ works in mysterious ways. In all the families, it isn’t the same experience for every individual. But the time He chose to really take things to the next step was when I was about nineteen going on twenty. I had just finished my second year at university. I had been searching big time in my heart without necessarily knowing it was Him I was searching for. I think a lot of people can testify the same.
On paper, I had everything. I had good family and good friends. I was in a great university training to be a doctor. It was good, but I wasn’t happy; I was missing something and my heart was really longing. I was listening to the world’s message about what you need to be doing to fill the void of your desire, of what you need to subscribe to to be happy, but that was just making me more unhappy.
Alongside that narrative, was my unwavering faith in God. I knew there was God, I never doubted that and I never questioned that. I have to attribute that to my family and to my upbringing. I just prayed a lot asking Him what I thought I needed and what He was going to do for me. I just held on for dear life, praying, praying, praying. Eventually He used those misguided desires of a young man to draw me into Himself, the source of all true desire.
I got this strong sense that I had to go to Lourdes when I was in the chapel praying so I went. I was going to go by myself, but one of my best friends came with me. I had a great experience there. but things continued on much like before.
The year after that, I had kind of fallen in with a guy who is actually the nephew of the bishop, Bishop Donal McKeown, who came over here. His nephew is one of my best friends and he is pretty much a carbon copy of my own background. Country farm, Catholic upbringing and just jolly good time at university. He told me about a youth group that was going to Lourdes and said he would be going to Lourdes in the summer to work with the sick, but also it’s your own pilgrimmage as well. This was with the Diocese down in Connor. So I went along with them.
The Lord is just so graceful to me, and everything was just singing in Lourdes. He couldn’t have been more obvious about how substantially present He was! Everything that was being said to me, that I was desiring, I just heard it echoing here and here and here… and then the next place! Saying mass…the preaching…the encounter I was having with the people I was meeting. It was just overwhelming to experience the grace that Lourdes is and the healing that the shrine is so much about. People would say your faith isn’t about sensational experiences and I totally agree with that. But in the start, He can definitely give you a good bit of sugar!
That was in July and I was a week there. It lit me on fire! One of the most powerful things was the natural beauty of the area; it is stunning! And there is a Basilica there called the Rosary Basilica. There was a massive domed roof and on that dome, you have an icon of the blessed virgin looking down on her family. Her mantle is lifted like she’s holding everyone in and just spreading her arms, gathering all her chicks into the barn. On the last day, I remember looking up and it was like a waterfall was just driving down from her down to me. It was overwhelming to feel the awe-inspiring love that was coming through for no reason…I’m looking at a picture on a roof! There’s no earthly reason that that should have been going on, but it was.
I got home and a friend extended an invitation to go along to the Youth 2000 summer festival which is three or four days long in the center of Ireland in a place called Clonmacnoise. This is another place of deep spiritual heritage in the Irish narrative where monks under St. Ciaran formed monastic communities and then actually went out to Europe to evangelize after the faith was essentially knocked on its heals in Europe. The Irish, in a really tangible way, were the spark of the torch that relit that fire. Such a small little island shows you what God can do with little things; in fact He nearly prefers to work that way! Just to pay testament to that, when JPII visited on his famous papal visit in the 70’s, that was one of the places he wanted to get to. His schedule, as you can imagine was rammed, but he made the cars drive to this very out of the way place in the center of Ireland so he could pray and pay homage at the site where these monks had prayed and lived. He could trace his own community and faith in Poland to those Irish monks who really saddled up and evangelized. How’s that for payback! We get Pope John Paul II out of that. Isn’t that just a testament to the Divine plan and spiritual economy.
Your bishop came with you as well?
Fr. James is a very wise man and he recognized that Bishop Donal is a great man. Bishop Doanl is a very earthy and solid man. You could certainly say his persona appeals very much to me coming from a farm background. He is just a very genuine man. A man who I think is very much up for doing whatever it is going to get the faith reignited in his flock and his people in Ireland. The bishops are our apostles; they are who Christ chose to be His representatives and to be the channels of His grace. I think Fr. James wanted him to be here to experience this so that he knows that this is a really credible movement and group of people that have transformed the face of the civilization in the States for many people.
Does Bishop Donal have evangelization happening in his diocese?
I’m sure he does, but I’m not actually in his diocese. I went to school in his diocese and like I say, I come from a farm and on my land – my father’s land, he’d kick my butt if he heard me say that! – three dioceses actually meet on one of our fields so I like to think I can dip my finger in whatever pie I wish!
He’s in the Derry diocese which is where I went to grammar and secondary school. I’m from the diocese of Clogher myself, but I am living in and have been practicing my faith down in the diocese of Connor. I’m all over the show personally! Derry certainly seems to have a few things going on, but I wouldn’t pretend to be the most in the know about it.
I suppose having Bishop Donal come over here to this, I wouldn’t second guess the man, but its bound to be extremely inspiring. Especially because, as I’m sure you know, in Ireland – fair enough not in Northern Ireland, but still Ireland – the recent vote to allow same-sex marriage. That just gives a flavor of where our people’s hearts are at. I was kind of the opinion that this isn’t a bad thing because it gets rid of the illusion that Ireland is a Catholic country which is a good thing as far as I am concerned. Until you have a wake up call, you’re going to stumble along over the cliff until God only knows where you wind up. It was a real shock to the people who needed to see where things really are at. Many of my friends, who turned their back in one way or another, in one degree or another to the faith, ask “What’s going on with the Church in terms of same-sex marriage?” I was able to ask, “What’s the difference between same-sex marriage and contracepting marriages?” Philosophically when you get really down to it… this didn’t come out of no-where. And that is the key to recognizing and fixing the big problem.
To try to win people’s hearts back, you have to identify how far back the rift goes. It’s not like homosexual marriage is something we have to prevent at all costs. That isn’t the game; it’s winning the hearts of the people for Christ; getting them to choose His Kingdom. People have drifted so far along the road to perdition without realizing it because of how subtlety the serpent was able to mislead and misguide the faithful for a long time now. It is all going to be very interesting where it all goes, but it is good to be getting so equipped.
What do you think you’ll go back and do with these tools you learned here from FOCUS?
Concretely? Well I suppose, I’ve put a lot of that answer onto the desire that I’m discerning in my heart about the priesthood. I’ve really put myself at the service of it.
One thing I really love about FOCUS is its drive to discipleship and making disciples through evangelization. The priesthood is a lot of things and there are many different roles priests fill like feeding the flock through the sacraments and whatnot. To me, what would be one of the strongest drives and thirsts and why I feel called to the priesthood is because of the opportunity to be an evangelist and to be a disciple maker. That is really where my heart lies. I suppose, for me there will may be a time of stepping back to be trained, to enter under Christ’s arm and walk the way with Him. That is until the point where He says, “Now go. I’ve prepared you as I want you to be.”
More small scale, more immediately, you can’t help but synthesize these techniques from the power sessions. So whenever you have opportunities that come up in conversations, at work for example, to really try to employ these tools, not in an artificial way, but to have some wit about it. To try to be intentional. It just makes it so exciting to have that commission. Living a life of greatness and heroism, that really speaks to the heart of masculinity. We have a warrior heart and we are wired to fight for the Truth. We need to look at the captains of the faith, those like Pope St. John Paul II. You almost feel like you’re in a film…I’m on a mission for Christ!
Thanks for sharing your story!