Year Long Bible Reading Challenge – An Invaluable Experience

On this All Saints’ Day, I take time to reflect on the completion of The Catholic Bible in 365 Days Challenge with the hope that one day, you will want to complete a similar challenge to deepen your love for the Word of God.

When I was in high school I was asked by some of my friends, if I ever read the Bible in its entirety before. I shamefully answered, “No”. I was ashamed because of my lack of commitment to reading the Word of God and lack of motivation to read it in its entirety.

From September 30, 2018 – September 30, 2019, I undertook a Challenge that I have been longing to do, but throughout the years, found excuses and lack of commitment to undertake a Challenge I called The Catholic Bible in 365 Day Challenge.

In the Summer of 2018, I was scrolling through YouTube and encountered a video of (now Father) Casey Cole, OFM, who said that he was going to read the Bible in its entirety before his priestly ordination. I contemplated joining him in the Challenge, but I wanted time for spiritual preparation. Shortly after, I chose September 30, 2018 to officially undertake this Challenge because September 30 is the memorial of St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church.

St. Jerome is the saint of the Scriptures. He spent much of his life working on the translation of the Bible from ancient sources to Latin, into the Vulgate Translation that we use today. The year 2019 marks the 1600th anniversary of his death, so what better way to commemorate this than reading the Bible in the time period leading towards this anniversary?

I put out the Challenge out on social media and invited other fellow Catholic friends to join me and people positively responded to the Challenge, willing to attempt it with their family and friends. (I don’t know how many people actually went through the Challenge until the end, but God knows!)

The Challenge is a commitment of spending 15-20 minutes per day for a year reading a specified chapters of a book in the Bible. Some may argue that it is very difficult to do so everyday for a year – but consider how much time we are on social media. We spend copious amounts of time from 20 minutes to several hours on social media, casually liking and scrolling through Instagram, SnapChat and Facebook, and we never complain. Yet, we complain when committing to an hour of Mass a week, or praying 5-minutes a day, or spending 15-minutes of reading Scripture.

From experience doing this Challenge, I understand that Bible reading is not always easy and may be discouraging at times. Some section are interesting to read while some are just dry or difficult to understand. Those, however, are not excuses to not read the Bible.

The more we question, the more answers we will get. There are many resources out there that will assist us in the reading of Scripture. The number one thing that I found helpful was using an appropriate Bible, a Catholic one (that contains the Apocrypha) with good notes. The New American Bible Revised Edition contain a lot of good footnotes. As a companion to that, I recently just bought a used copy of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and it has proven to be a very valuable resource in understanding various parts of Scripture.

For me, travelling both locally and overseas this past year has added to the experience of the Challenge. It was the act of reading the Bible in various places throughout the world that made the Challenge memorable. Most of the time, I read the Bible at my desk at home, the living room, or bed before I go to sleep. But there were times throughout the Challenge when I read the Bible in a chapel during a retreat, on a flight thousands of feet above land, in a seat in the Charles-de-Guelles Airport, on the shores of a beach in Spain, or in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. The portability of the Word of God was worthwhile. It kept it me constant prayer and reflection anywhere I was in the world throughout the year.

The biggest reward I got out of the Challenge was being able to gain a deeper appreciation and reverence to the Word of God. Sometimes, we attend Mass and know some readings such as the Birth of Jesus, or the Passion narratives and we know the events by heart. However, having read the Old Testament and the New Testaments, I was able to see how Biblical events connected together. When I hear a Gospel passage at Mass, seem to I have a much clearer context of what is being said. For example, when Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (Jn 3:14) Having read Numbers chapter 21, the Gospel passage makes a lot more sense and becomes rich in meaning.

Pope Francis in his recently published Moto Proprio, Aperuit Illis, in which he instituted the Sunday of the Word of God on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, reminded Catholics, “A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers.” (AI 8)

I hope every Catholic will try to read the Bible in its entirety at least once in your lifetime. It may not be a year-long commitment like my Challenge, but can span two or three years, depending on one’s level of commitment. However, this Challenge not only gave me a spiritual disciplining, but also a great love towards the Word of God, which is something that will last a lifetime, and I hope you will experience the same. St. Jerome, lover of the Scriptures, pray for us!

Posted in Catholic Books, Catholic Media, Catholic Reflection, Catholicism, Mission, Uncategorized, Vincent Pham | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Journey to “Freedom” – A Son of a Vietnamese Refugee Reflects on the Essex Tragedy

My Facebook News Feed has been flooded with news about the Essex Tragedy, from stories of suspected victims, stories of the tragedy itself, as well as the Catholic perspective on the story itself, to the point that even this tragedy has a reflective story on the Vietnamese Vatican News site. As a son of a Vietnamese refugee, and a first-generation Vietnamese-Canada, I reflect on this recent tragedy, even as news about its victims continue to unfold rapidly on the media.

I only learned about the tragic death of 39 people found in a refrigerated container two days after the terrible discovery was made. I kept the victims in my thoughts and prayers throughout the day but did not have much thought about their ethnicity, or where they came from. News about migrant and refugee deaths on the journey to seek liberation has been on the news in recent years, particularly in Syria and the Middle East, so such tragic news was not of surprise to me.

However, the past days, it has struck me that a majority of those people on that truck were people from Vietnam, people of the same ethnicity as my family and I. I have been surrounded by Vietnamese people for my whole life. I have Vietnamese friends, I participate in activities within the Vietnamese community, I have been a student of the Vietnamese International Languages Program of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. While I am a first generation Vietnamese Canadian within the family, I am very much rooted in the Vietnamese culture.

The people of Vietnam have faced much persecution throughout the centuries, speaking from both a religious and human right perspective. Particularly, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) saw a country torn by war, divided in morals and very restricted in religious freedom. From a the perspective of Catholic history in Vietnam, many activities were put “on hold”, from seminaries being closed, clergy not allowed to exercise their ministry, etc. The rise of communism also jeopardized human rights of the people in Vietnam. It is for that reason that since 1975, with the Fall of Saigon, people fled out of Vietnam to seek freedom, to seek a life where they would be free to exercise their human rights and religious freedom.

The story of the Vietnamese Boat People is very much comparable to the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites fled Egypt so to seek a brighter future for their families, and that they would be able to worship the One True God without oppression (see Book of Exodus). The Exodus of the Vietnamese people saw millions of Vietnamese people, including Catholics (including clergy) from 1975 up to early 1990s, fleeing Vietnam by fishing boats to reach refugee camps. From there, many people found refuge all over the world, including Canada, the United States of America, France, Australia, etc. Today, Vietnamese people are present all throughout the world, bringing with them their language, culture and traditions. I understand this story because my father was one of the millions of Vietnamese Boat People. I am surrounded within the Vietnamese community by many, many people who share similar story lines as my dad. I am in Toronto, Canada today, graduated with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, and currently undergoing studies at the University of Toronto today because my father took the risk to step on a fishing boat, spending several years at a refugee camp and welcomed by Canada in the 1980s. He, along with many others envisioned a brighter future which thankfully, worked out for them.

Unfortunately, not every one of the Vietnamese Boat People had a happy ending like that of my father and uncle. On my mother’s side, one of her brothers was brought back home dead in an attempt to escape. Some died at refugee camps, some were denied entry to any other country and forced to go back to Vietnam, possibly facing imprisonment and some, out of hate of the state of the country committed suicide because they did not want to go back.

I was surprised, haunted and saddened to learn of the tragedy in Essex. I was surprised that decades after the Vietnam war, in 2019, there are still Vietnamese “boat people” in a metaphorical, 21st century definition. I was haunted, not only because that (some) people found and opened a container with 39 life-less people with barely any clothing, who froze to death, but the fact that other people were willing to treat other people as cargo, as shipment, as mere objects was haunting. This story was obviously saddening because this is a death of 39 people, many suspected victims of whom were still so young, around the age that my father and uncle “vượt biên”. Some so far, have been said to be as young as 19, an age where people would hold in themselves so many dreams waiting to be fulfilled. While young people in Canada may be dreaming of getting their hands on a new iPhone 11, or Google Pixel 4, these young people had dreams of seeking freedom. They desired a life in which they could be authentically “free”, pursuing a career that would allow them to help not only themselves and their families.

The day that these 39 people spent thousands of dollars to embark on a Journey to Freedom, their journey became a Journey to “Freedom”. I think that little did they know, the moment they stepped onto that cargo container did they see death in front of them, rather than the freedom that they were hoping for. I cannot help but think of stories of the Holocaust, where people were stuffed into the gas chamber where they were “gassed” to death. I could not help but think of this image when I read of the last text a girl sent to her parents, “I can’t breathe” and the x-ray image of victims, as it passed through customs, striving to breathe.

I often end these sort of reflections by asking us to pray for the victims of such a tragedy. However, I do not think prayer is enough. We must take action to ensure that such events never happen again. Let us defend the dignity of the human person, defending human rights in the spirit of the Gospel. We can do this in a variety of means, on social media, joining peaceful protests, petitions asking the government to show concern towards the issue of human rights, and migrants and refugees, or joining a school Social Justice or Human Rights club. We must not be silent. We are privileged to live in a country where we do not to be constantly worried about our rights and freedoms. It is for that reason that we must be the voice for the voiceless.

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The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe – Part 4 of 4

This is a continuation and the conclusion of The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe four-part series, where I recount the most significant moments during my March Break Europe tour, with other travellers from Chaminade College School. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 can be found here.

The last part of our school’s Europe tour were to Sorrento and Capri in southern Italy, about 3 -4 hour by on land vehicle from the city of Rome. I honestly have never heard of Sorrento and Capri prior to signing up for the Europe tour, so it was a place of surprise for me. 

Lemons sold at a shop in Sorrento
Statue of St. Antoninus of Sorrento in the middle of an intersection in Sorrento

Sorrento had a much quieter atmosphere compared to Rome. While Rome has very tall structures that had what I’d say a “rigid” sense, Sorrento had very lively buildings in bright colours. A special feature of Sorrento are their lemons. Their lemons are huuuugggggge, and everywhere you go, you see lemons, even lemon soap, lemon towels… all sorts of lemon merchandise. Catholicism is very much present there, as I passed by the Seminary and their Cathedral. Most notable for me was the presence of a statue in hermit-like clothing depicted in sculptures and images throughout Sorrento. I found the answer when I randomly stepped into a church, and was surprised to see how grand it was. The mysterious saintly figure again appeared, but very prominently in the church. I later found out once I got home, did some research that the church I stepped in was the Shrine to St. Antoninus of Sorrento, and abbot, and hermit. He was a figure who seemed to be very dear to the Catholics of the area.

Interior of the Shrine of St. Antoninus of Sorrento

That church was no where near the scale of St. Peter’s Basilica, but it was very unique. I approached the altar, and two sides walls had, encased behind glass small “cubby holes” of which I believe to be relics of saints. This is honestly now surprise to me because churches in Italy often have many relics for veneration by the public. Atop the main crucifix depicted saints, with St. Antoninus of Sorrento in the centre. When I stepped in, there was group of people, probably a part of a choir practicing some Italian hymns (I am assuming they were singing Italian hymns). 

The Crypt Chapel of the Shrine

I saw two stairs on the two sides near the sanctuary. They were not just any set of stairs, they were decorated, similar to those of the Confessio of St. Peter’s Basilica. I knew there could be something “big” down there, so I went down and stepped into a Chapel filled with light. There, in the centre of all activity was a statue of St. Antoninus of Sorrento atop an altar (ad orientem). I noticed below the statue was a grate, with a lighted candle. Having looked at some altars of this type, I knew this altar had some major relic inside, likely of St. Antoninus and my research confirmed those assumptions. The surrounding walls had ex votos of all sizes in the classic Italian style, in shapes of hearts and various symbols, thanking St. Antoninus for a specific grace. I knelt down in front of the high altar at kneeler provided and I loved the silence and solemnity. It was only myself inside the crypt chapel. 

Evening near the beaches (below) in Sorrento

That night in Sorrento, myself and some colleagues went down the hill down to the beach below. The experience of walking along the beach this time was different than that in Barcelona or Nice. There were not many people present at the beach since the water was a little cold and the sun was setting. The quietness, and the sound of the waters is something you do not get the experience much in Toronto. Some of the guys were playing volleyball. I sat near the waters, and just sat there, taking in the moment. After a while, I stood up and started walking in my pair of flip-flops and stepped into the waters for a bit, just up to my ankles. It was cold, so I did not stand in the water for long. Then, I just began casually walking along the coast, letting my feet dry in the sand. I started singing, “Hôm nào dưới nắng reo vui, mình tôi rong chơi trên bãi biển…” (translation: “One happy day under the sun, I was alone casually walking on the beach…”) from Dấu Chân (Footprints) a Vietnamese song, based on the popular poem Footprints, with music accompaniment by the late Bishop Joseph Thống Vũ. I only knew of the song two days after he passed away when it circulated widely on Facebook. While I’ve sung it in front of crowds before, many emotions went through me as I sung It alone on the beach and the sun slowing setting. 

The Cathedral of St. Stephen (Santo Stefano) in Capri

We headed to the island of Capri the next day and I found Capri to be very interesting. I knew absolutely nothing about Capri prior to the trip so everything was surprise. Capri was very lively. It’s a small town but full of life. It was Sunday, the Lord’s Day and I was trying to find a church for Mass. We had an hour of free time, so I headed to the Cathedral of St. Stephen (Santo Stefano), which is smaller than that of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, but it was still gorgeous. I tried to look for a sign with Mass times, but unfortunately, I came right after they had Mass and the next one would be an hour later – by then, I would be back with the group heading back for Rome. I did not know what to do, since we did not have chance for Mass the previous week either since were travelling from place to place. Then, I thought of asking for Holy Communion. I went to the back of the Sacristy (I still do not know how I found the courage to even do that). I found the sacristan and he knew minimal english. He lead me to an old priest, vested for the next Mass in an hour. He did not know much english either, and I could not explain to him using dialogue, so I used hand gestures. The sacristan translated as much he could for the old priest. At first, the priest shook his head, “No”. I said, “Grazie” and began leaving the sacristy area. At the door of the sacristy, the priest called me back, and gestured me to go to the sanctuary and wait for him. I did not know what was going to happen. The priest went to the tabernacle, took a ciboria out and began saying prayers in Italian. I knew a little Latin to understand that what was taking place was the Rite of Holy Communion Outside of Mass. I said all the prayers in English while he said most of the prayers in Italian. When he came to me with the host, I knelt down to receive the Eucharist as the priest said, “Corpus Christi,” and I replied, “Amen.” I continued to kneel down in prayer until the priest said a short prayer and offered the final blessing in Italian. I stood up, and said the only Italian sentence I knew, “Grazie Padre”. The priest smiled and gave me a thumbs up. 

I walked out the Cathedral while some parishioners seemed puzzled at what just happened. Then, I realized I was wearing a sweater saying, “Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể Việt Nam – Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement”. I wondered if the priest changed his mind because of that – I will never know why he changed mind that quickly. Either way, I was very happy as I believed everything happened out of God’s providence. Since then, I believe that something in me has changed in the way I receive Holy Communion – seem to have developed a much conscientious mindset now. We may take the act of receiving Holy Communion for granted because we do so each week sometimes out of routine. Yet, that should not be so, because the one whom we receive each week in the Eucharist is truly Jesus Christ who is true God and true Man. 

A view of the lively streets of Capri

The ride back to Rome was of mixed emotions because it was the last piece of travelling within Europe we would be doing before heading back to Canada the next day. I cherished every moment on the bus, sleeping at times, but most of all, just looking outside through the window at the scenery, or pulling out the Breviary to do the Liturgy of the Hours. 

The next day, everyone woke up at 5:00am to get our suitcases and head to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino airport. We had a stop in Amsterdam and then it was an 8-hour flight back to Toronto on KLM Dutch Airline.

I remember looking out while the plane was on the East coast of Canada. The sky was clear of clouds, so I could actually look down and see the snow-covered land. It was beautiful to see how wide our country was. At 4:00pm EST,  I did Evening Prayer of the day and remember praying for the Church in Canada. 

Evening Prayer above Canada

Even after almost a whole day of travelling, it was only past 5:00pm when I arrived in Toronto. My dad was waiting for me at the airport. That ended a packed 12-Day Tour and Pilgrimage in Europe. 

There is a lot that I left out from this four-part series post, because there our group did so much within twelve days. My legs were sore by the ninth day of the tour, but it was all worth it. While I learned a lot of the different cultures I encountered, I was very much attracted to the presence of Catholicism in these areas. It proved to me the universality of the Catholic Church, and even so, we all profess the same faith in the Creed. It was a profound experience visiting the most prominent places of Catholicism, and even to the lesser known churches. I certainly want to go back on a tour to Europe because I learned, I have a lot discovery and learning to do in Europe.

I would like to thank Mr. Veiga and Mr. Di Rezze for your tireless efforts in organizing the trip almost two years in advance. I also send a special thanks to Ms. Claudia Mura, our tour guide throughout the whole duration of the trip – your expertise, care and concern made this a very memorable and smooth trip! I also extend my gratitude to Explorica Canada who gave us great service.

A thank you also goes out to those who have journeyed with me physically and virtually throughout my days in Europe. I was very blessed to go on this trip with an amazing group of guys of my now, alma mater Chaminade College School. You guys made this trip a lot of fun. It was a chance for me to get to know each of you guys better and for me to share my joys of Catholicism with everyone of you, especially when visiting the holiest of places of our faith. To those who journeyed virtually with me, it means a lot of to me: putting up with Skype calls at awkward times, dealing with my rants about Rome, etc. The assistance such as tips and lending of guide books were very helpful as well. Most of all thank you for your prayers and mental support. Being outside of Canada without my parents was a little worrisome, but my physical and virtual companions have allowed me to not be homesick at all. To all… thank you.

Now, World Youth Day 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal? Let’s see!

Posted in About me, Catholicism, Christian, Divine Office, Missal, Travel, Uncategorized, Vincent Pham, World Youth Day, Youth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe – Part 3 of 4

This is a continuation of The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe four-part series, where I recount the most significant moments during my March Break Europe tour, with other travellers from Chaminade College School. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.

We boarded the bus for Rome and the Vatican, another region which I fell even more in love with Catholicism and therefore, fell in love with the city and its history. 

Why is Rome so important? I say it is the “heart” of the Roman Catholic Church – that is why we have “Roman” in the title. The first Pope, Peter, at one time lead the Catholic Church in Antioch, but moved to Rome. It is there that the first pope did much of his ministry. It is there that he was martyred for professing faith in Jesus Christ. 

The Church of Trinità dei Monti and the Spanish Steps in Rome

While Rome has modernized greatly since the time of St. Peter and the apostles, I could not help but think that many saints have one walked in these areas from martyrs to popes. 

There were many things I could remember about Rome, but I am only going to recount the highlights during my time in the Eternal City

After walking down the Spanish Steps, we went to the Trevi Fountain, and then to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was originally a temple to gods, but now it is a Basilica, a Basilica of Mary, Mother of Martyrs. Raphael and some other notable people are buried in there. However, it is a very ancient building. Bishop Barron, on his recent visit there remarked that many of the “pivotal players” of Catholicism have seen this building. This is what he had to say about the Pantheon:

The Basilica was indeed very old and the rich history behind it, including the people buried in the Basilica was striking to me (so did many of the Churches of Rome). Like Bishops Barron, while walking through Rome, I thought of the many people before me, including the saints and other famous people including theologians, philosophers, artists, etc. who have walked the streets of Rome and likely saw many of the same building I did during my time there. 

What was striking for me was the Friday March 15, which was the highlight of the trip for me, where we spent a whole day walking through Vatican City and enjoyed walking the streets of Rome (specifically Trastevere) after visiting the Colosseum. 

Vatican Museums

That day started with the Vatican Museums which unfortunately, I did not do much research on, but it is huge – very large compared to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. We saw many artifacts not only of Catholicism, but statues of gods and goddesses, things before and after the time of Christ, tapestries, maps, etc. While we only had time to go through a very small fraction of the museums, the crowning jewel of the Vatican Museums tour was ultimately the Sistine Chapel. I was a little disappointed with its size, since I thought that a Chapel used for the Conclave, it should have been a bit larger to have rows of tables for 121 men… but nevertheless, I was amazed at the beauty. Indeed, what I said years ago in a class assignment, “The Sistine Chapel is a place filled with life,” is very true, especially when you step in and see the stories of the creation of the universe. I walked around the chapel a few times, walking through the centre isle, as Cardinals would do when they approach the altar to cast their ballot. I wanted to walk in their shoes for a couple minutes. Standing in front of Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgement was striking, especially knowing that the Cardinals would cast their ballot, saying, “Testor Christum Dominum, qui me iudicaturus est, me eum eligere, quem secundum Deum iudico eligi debere.” (English translation: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected.”) 

From the Sistine Chapel, we walked to St. Peter’s Basilica. We used a special group entrance, and passed by the locked Holy Doors. That was a special moment for me to see the doors up close since I wrote about the Holy Doors at length throughout the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016. Another moment I remember was standing at the front and centre entrance of the Basilica, the place where the clergy and the Pope would process out for outdoor Papal Masses. I saw the canopy that covered the Mass area and I remembered pictures of the funeral of Pope John Paul II, in which the coffin passed through that way, and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis processing out for beatifications, canonizations, inauguration and closing of important events within the Catholic Church such as the Year of Faith and the Jubilee of Mercy. 

The beautiful dome of St. Peter’s Basilica where below it sits the main Papal Altar, and below that the tomb of St. Peter, apostle

The most significant part of the trip was ultimately St. Peter’s Basilica, the church in which I have seen countless pictures of throughout my lifetime, at the moment suddenly brought to life. While I loved seeing the Pieta and many, many beautiful pieces of art, tried to contain my picture-taking to a minimum since I wanted to be in a prayerful mode. I went by the famous bronze statue of St. Peter, to the right of the Papal altar whose feet have been worn down from all the kissing of pilgrims throughout the centuries. I did that same reverent gesture that pilgrims have done. Then, I proceeded to the Altar of Confession, and stood as close as I could to gate leading down to St. Peter’s tomb. I took off my ring and laid it near the gate. I took out the Breviary I prepared months prior to the trip, and opened to the page which I added, with the Profession of Faith. It is customary for pilgrims to do a profession of faith at the tomb of the apostles of Sts. Peter and Paul. Bishops do so during their Ad Limina visits and it is perhaps one of their spiritually important moments during those visits. I did the same as I slowly read the Nicene Creed and once again, professed my belief in the doctrines of the Catholic Church. For me, that was a very important moment on the trip. 

Another specific highlight that day was the Colosseum, a “must-see” for anyone who goes to Rome. It has become one of the most iconic landmarks of the eternal city. For me, visiting the Colosseum was important not because it was a landmark of Rome, but rather it was to pay homage to the many Christians who professed faith in Jesus Christ. Symbols of Christianity were present all throughout the Colosseum, most prominently the Cross. It is there that the Way of the Cross with the Holy Father is celebrated on every Good Friday. I took time looking at all the ancient inscriptions and minimal art that was in there, but this too was a moving part for me. 

A panorama of the interior of Rome’s Colosseum

Everywhere you turn in Rome, there is some trace of Catholicism, even within fountains (such as the Trevi Fountain) and monuments. Sometimes it was a cross that topped a monument, a papal coat-of-arms that decorated a fountain or the papal tiara with crossed keys that was engraved on an obelisk. Not only were symbols of Christianity visible almost everywhere in Rome, but everywhere you turn, there is a church. That fact should be of no surprise, especially when there are more than 900 churches in Rome. Every time I passed by a Church, I wanted to step in to “check it out”, obviously with the reverence due to the Eucharist reserved in every Church.  While you just can’t miss the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, people tend to forget about the hundreds of churches in Rome. Besides the “big” stuff in Rome, I remember the times when I randomly dropped into a Church near a gelato shop that my friends were stopping by or a souvenir shop. The thing is, you never know when you will return to those places, so you want to go into every Church and every Church I stepped in was beautiful! You don’t know what you’ll see. Without a guidebook, you will be surprised to find a tomb of saint or large relics. I remember stepping into the gorgeous Santa Maria in Trastevere with beautiful mosaics adorning the sanctuary. Then, on a smaller scale, I remember stepping into San Salvador in Onda. I did not know what to expect in that Church until I saw a tomb of a saint beneath the altar – that of St. Vincent Pallotti. I grabbed a couple prayer cards from the vestibule that were freely available. 

Interior of San Salvador in Onda, which houses of the (visible) remains of St. Vincent Pallotti below the main altar

Those impromptu visits to those Churches really allowed me to see the influence Catholicism has in Rome, it showed how powerful the Catholic Church was. I wonder how those 900+ churches are maintained. Yet, all of these things are to ultimately glorify God. One day, these earthly building of worship will pass. God does not need 900+ churches in a city but these churches should serve as instruments that lead us to the heavenly banquet, not merely pieces of art. We can go into these churches and can find awe in them. But do they help us come closer to God? We must answer to God one day about what we have done to serve him and his Church. May the beautiful places of pilgrimage that we enter be a push for our spiritual lives, that we may become not only church builders on earth, but temples of the Holy Spirit.

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The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe – Part 2 of 4

This is a continuation of The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe four-part series, where I recount the most significant moments during my March Break Europe tour, with other travellers from Chaminade College School. Part 1 can be found here.

While I have heard of Assisi through the life of St. Francis of Assisi, I honestly never paid much attention to the geography of Assisi or even cared about the time in which St. Francis and St. Clare lived in. It was only when I stepped foot into Assisi that I really understood the lifestyle of the people of Assisi. The town of Assisi is a world heritage-protected site by UNESCO. It has kept much of its medieval style. 

I loved walking (and running) through the streets of Assisi because it is a place that you would not see anywhere in Toronto. While it is a busy town today with merchants selling souvenirs, little Italian students touring the town, and even McDonalds  vans parking in the town, I liked seeing clergy, mainly Franciscans dressed in brown walking the streets. That day in Assisi I think was the day I have seen the most Franciscans in my life. 

In front of the crypt entrance of the Basilica

Cameras were not allowed in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. I loved taking pictures, so that was off my list while in the Basilica. However, it was because cameras were forbidden that I actually went through the Basilica, looking carefully at the beautifully painted frescoes and furniture inside the Basilica and while doing so, I kept a prayerful mode. I also like the fact that pilgrims were also allowed to walk through the sanctuary space where the friars would recite the Liturgy of the Hours. The crypt church was just as beautiful as the main church. I even saw the chair which Pope Francis sat in during one of his apostolic visits to Assisi. 

The precious treasures in the Basilica is what captivated me the most. The “relic room” which kept the belongings of St. Francis. As I venerated and looked at the relics, including his habit and the alb he used for Mass, I contemplated the simplicity of Deacon Francis. 

The “Peace Prayer” attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, I hand copied the prayer on the back of my prayer intentions and put it near the tomb of St. Francis

However, Francis’ simplicity is most evident in the Chapel containing his tomb. Being at the tomb, and falling on my knees in prayer by his tomb was one of the most important moments on this trip to Europe. I recited the “Peace Prayer” attributed to him (though sources say it is not written by him, but still, a beautiful prayer) and the Collect used at the Mass of October 4th, his feast day. It was difficult to leave that prayerful chapel, but like St. Francis, I was eager to continue the mission of evangelization that every baptized person is tasked with. 

My friends and I dropped by the large souvenir shop just by the Basilica courtyard. It was a large shop, much more than I imagines from religious art, books, medals, print media… However, I wanted to bring a piece of Assisi with me (literally) and it was suitable that I bought a holy card with a relic of a chip of stone from the tomb of St. Francis. I only trusted its authenticity because it came from the Basilica’s souvenir shop. Today, that relic is placed right beside a small statue of St. Francis on my bedroom altar. 

After the brief but prayerful visit on the grounds of the Basilica of St. Francis, my friends and I went to find a place for lunch. I took advantage of the time to explore since I saved two croissants from breakfast. While some guys were at a pizza shop, there was a church close by, so I walked inside it. There were not many people in the church. However, a man came up to me and greeted me in Italian. All I could say was “Ciao”. He thought I understood Italian, so he started saying a whole bunch of things in Italian. All I understood was when he gave me a holy card of St. Francis of Assisi and held out his palm. I accepted the small gift. However, I explained to him, that I did not have money to spare. I could offer him were prayers. I used hand gestures in case he did not understand English. I smiled and thanked me, and I game him a “Grazie”. As I walked out of the church, I looked down to the ground and saw that the centre isle was covered in glass – literally a glass floor. I was curious but had no Wi-fi to research what church it was and why it has glass floor. I went home and learned that the church I stepped foot into was the Cathedral of Assisi. The glass floor allowed pilgrims to look at the very old foundation of the building. 

When I got out of the Cathedral, I said to my friends to walk at their own pace as I was running ahead of them to find a shop that would sell some Franciscan “Tau” Crosses (crosses shaped in a ‘T’). I found a shop and bought some as gifts for people. 

Our school group only spent a little more than two-hours in Assisi. However, I got a taste of the lifestyle of Assisi. The people there are very kind and hospitable. They seem to reflect the humble Franciscan. I hope one day, I will return to Assisi and spend a day visiting the other churches there, and perhaps, get to know some Franciscans. 

Relief in the courtyard of the Basilica
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The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe – Part 1 of 4

This summer, with quiet time after my graduation, preparing for University, I am taking time to reflect on my recent tour to Europe, specifically looking at the various dimensions of Catholicism within the various parts of Europe visited. These reflections will come out in a four-part post series.

It has been over four months since I, along with some colleagues from Chaminade College School and two teachers boarded a flight to Barcelona, Spain where from there, we toured Barcelona, south of France and central Italy. While we spent much time walking along the boardwalk of Barcelona’s beaches, riding a merry go round in Florence, visiting Fragonance Perfumeries in Côte d’Azur, what resonated with me the most were the Catholic Churches and architecture in the place we visited and I will speak about this aspect in this blog post. There were so many aspects to the trip, and that I will write about in the near future.

Catholicism has been around for nearly two-thousand years. The Catholic Church has faced persecution, scandals, oppression by various governments (even today). Yet, we have stood firm in faith and never has Catholicism died. Being in Europe proved this in me as we went from Spain, France and finally to Italy. Catholicism has had a mark in all these countries, evident by its presence of numerous Churches, monuments and art. 

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Top of the Passion facade of Sagrada Familia

In Spain, it was the Basilica of Sagrada Familia, the “unfinished Church” that I first learned of Barcelona. Little did I know that years later, I would find myself viewing the facade of this Basilica. It was a magnificent Basilica. We did not step into its interior, but even its exterior was a lot to take in. Looking through the lens of the secular world, it is an iconic symbol of Barcelona. Through the lens of the Catholic world, Sagrada Familia is rich in symbolism – it is a summative history of our salvation, as we go through symbols of the Old Testament, to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, and finally, to symbols from the liturgy and sacraments. 

While on the bus ride from Spain to France, I used the time to upload my pictures I took while in Barcelona and transfer them to my hard drive. I then came across the picture of the Passion Facade of Gaudi’s famous Basilica of Sagrada Familia. I then immediately started writing this reflection, with the aid of my Bible beside me, reflecting and comparing Jesus Christ  and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that I just completed reading in English class. 

In France, I remember Avignon very well. Even though the doors of the Cathedral of Avignon were closed by the afternoon we got there, standing in the Cathedral square was an amazing experience. Then facing the Papal Palaces, I took a look at the grounds surrounding it and I thought of the Popes who have once walked those grounds. Avignon was once “the Vatican”, as Popes were exiled there in the years (1309 to 1376). 

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In the Cathedral Square of Avignon

In France, I remember Avignon very well. Even though the doors of the Cathedral of Avignon were closed by the afternoon we got there, standing in the Cathedral square was an amazing experience. Then facing the Papal Palaces, I took a look at the grounds surrounding it and I thought of the Popes who have once walked those grounds. Avignon was once “the Vatican”, as Popes were exiled there in the years 1309 to 1376. 

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The doors of the Basilica Saint-Pierre d’Avignon

I said to some, if you really want to see castles from medieval times, visit Avignon. You’ll see many castles. The Papal Palaces were actually castles (you can see part of it in the picture to the right of the Cathedral). Again, the presence of Catholicism is very evident in Avignon by its presence of churches in such a small town. I remember walking by the Basílica Saint-Pierre d’Avignon and could not help but look at the beautifully carved doors.

I said to some, if you really want to see castles from medieval times, visit Avignon. You’ll see many castles. The Papal Palaces were actually castles (you can see part of it in the picture to the right of the Cathedral). Again, the presence of Catholicism is very evident in Avignon by its presence of churches in such a small town. I remember walking by the Basílica Saint-Pierre d’Avignon and could not help but look at the beautifully carved doors. Catholicism inspired not only the building of churches but also the art, and lifestyle of the city. You can see crosses and depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout the streets.

After spending some days in France, we headed on to Italy. As we went through Florence, Assisi, Rome, Sorrento and Capri, Churches were everywhere – in the city and rural areas. However, throughout the tour, the two regions that captivated me were Assisi and Rome. 

(To be continued.)

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High School Graduation: Class of 2019 Valedictory Speech

Graduation June 27, 2019 (Photo: Twitter @FaisalHassanNDP)

Thursday June 27, 2019 was a very memorable day as over 230 young men of the Class of 2019 graduated Chaminade College School after four years walking through the halls and sitting in the classrooms of the 55 year-old school. To my surprise, my peers elected me to represent them in giving the valedictorian speech. I thank those who proofread this speech, and offered kind advice in making this speech as representative of the Class of 2019 as possible. The following is the text I presented the night of graduation: 

Dear staff, parents, guests and friends of the class of 2019,If you know me, I am not keen on speaking in front of large crowds, or giving scripted speeches, but these young men have chosen me to represent them, so I will give it my best. 

Four years have gone by, 40 months of high school from September 2015 to June 2019. Many ups and downs, laughter and tears, joys and sorrows. 

I don’t know if you can recall, but every parent got a gold handbook like this, and it said “Class of 2019”. When I saw the booklet, I thought, “2019? When is that going to come?” And I am sure many of the young graduates here thought the same thing. 

Four years may seem like a long time, but those who have been through high school can testify that it is not. Tonight is a night to celebrate what these four years have brought back to every one of us young men. We entered a high school classroom from all walks of life, from north, south, west and east, attending a school on 490 Queen’s Drive. But what did attending this 55 year old school these past four years bring us?

Some may say that these four years gave me y=mx+b, y=x^2, or knowing the parts of a PC from the hard drive, RAM… or knowing how to mix colours to get a new tone for a painting, how to give a proper presentation, how to cite work… But Chaminade College School hopefully brought  us something much more than that. 

Many of these young men sitting here have been very active in sports such as football, cross-country, track and field, ultimate frisbee team to name a few. Some were involved in various clubs such as Student Council, the Outdoors Club, Stop the Stigma, while some were involved in the smallest tasks within the school community such as setting up the gym about 9 to 10 times for Mass, or taking part in the Mass band. These sports, clubs and other small things that we have taken part in has helped to form who we are today. 

Thankfully, there is so much more to Chaminade than just marks, clubs and sports. For four years, we have been identifying ourselves as, “the men of green and gold”. But some of you may be asking, why “men of green and gold?” Why not red and white? Blue and gold? Or any other colour? Green represents the hope that young people have in themselves, a hope to do well in school, a hope to succeed. Gold represents strength, strength that young people should have within themselves. This strength does not pertain to just a physical strength. Rather all goes back to the words on the crest that we have been proudly wearing the past four years, “FORTES IN FIDE – STRONG IN FAITH.” 

We leave Chaminade not only with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, but hopefully with stronger faith, because that is what makes a Catholic school – the aspect of faith. It is the hope that we leave here tonight as men of strong faith not only in God and his Church, but also in ourselves as well. Hopefully we have learned exactly what St. Paul said, “I can do ALL things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

I hope we leave tonight seeing ourselves as different people than who we were in September of 2015. I believe that if we have seen some positive change in ourselves, then our parents and teachers have done their job well.  

Tonight we should take the opportunity to not only celebrate the class of 2019, but also offer some words of thanks for those who have brought us to this day. 

We first of all give thanks to almighty God for his great love for us. It is through His love and guiding hand for having placed great people within our lives to lead us in faith, hope and love. 

Our parents were our first teachers and planted in us the seed, to help us grow into who we are today. Their care and concern for their children is great, which may upset, or even get us stressed… but deep down, we know that all comes from a great heart. 

Tonight would not come to us without the great staff at Chaminade. We owe a great debt to these people sitting up here. They have spent countless hours not only teaching, but many of them coaching, and moderating clubs. These people strive to get young men to succeed in school and in life.

I know that there are some parents and friends who have brought the members of the class of 2019 to where they are today that have gone before us, according to the Lord’s plans. Let us take a moment of silence to thank them, and pray for the repose of their souls (moment of silence).

My last words go out to my fellow classmates in the class of 2019. Dear friends, it has been a blessing for all of us to walk through the same halls and sit in the same classes for the past four years. Each of you have been a gift and we have all been blessed to have known each other. Wherever we go, let us be “Fortes in Fide – let us be Strong in Faith”, because with strong faith, we can do what God wants us to do in our lives. God is good and only wants the best for each and every one of us. 

I would like to close with this short prayer: 

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand. (Irish Blessing)

To all of you, thank you. God bless. 

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