The Holy Spirit is essential to the stewardship commitment, says popular Vancouver evangelist
By Laureen McMahon
The B.C. Catholic
VANCOUVER--Local Catholic evangelist Vernon Robertson, who was once dubbed a "Catholic Action Hero" by the National Post, travels everywhere with a Bible so well thumbed it's almost falling apart.
Robertson was among those who received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, the highest papal medal that can be bestowed, at Holy Rosary Cathedral last Oct. 3. A leader in evangelization in the Vancouver archdiocese, he heads the Archdiocesan Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
Now retired, the meat-cutter-turned-prayer-warrior profoundly touched many hearts when he spoke last fall at an archdiocesan stewardship conference, said Archdiocesan Vice-chancellor and Director of Stewardship Barbara Dowding.
"Vern's enthusiasm, commitment, and deep connection to the Holy Spirit makes him an exemplary model for the stewardship movement," said Dowding.
Connecting to the Holy Spirit is essential for effective stewardship and the sharing of time, talents, and treasure, Robertson noted in his talk, You Will Receive Power When You Catch the Vision.
For Robertson, catching any sort of vision of religious faith was the last thing on his mind while he was growing up in Scotland. He lived pretty much on his own terms, he admits today. By the time he was a young adult he had developed a taste for drinking and gambling. Organized religion was "nonsense."
After coming to Canada, the confirmed skeptic took Catholic instruction, because his Dublin-born future wife was determined to marry in the Church. However, Robertson's rejection of Christianity proved no match for the Holy Spirit. When he stumbled upon a Charismatic prayer group at the church he only attended sporadically, he had a life-changing experience that literally knocked him to the ground.
Many evangelicals and charismatics call it being "slain in the Spirit."
"Whatever you call it, it was intense," Robertson told The B.C. Catholic in a recent interview.
"I felt as though my heart had been pierced by a flame and my body was made of Jell-O. I fell down and couldn't get to my feet. Suddenly the words, `I love you with an everlasting love and I will never leave you nor forsake you' entered my mind."
Like Paul on the road to Emmaus, Robertson's stunning epiphany completely altered his view of the meaning of life and of religion. Soon he was studying the Bible day and night to prepare himself to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a travelling evangelist. His commitment took him to the U.K. and Europe, the Holy Land, and around Canada.
Robertson learned about the Alpha Course, a Christian evangelization program founded in England by Anglican minister Nicky Gumbel, and asked permission to introduce it in a few Vancouver parishes. The wildly successful course soon spread to other parishes as a simple way to evangelize lapsed Catholics and attract non-believers through non-threatening personal encounters with Christians.
Robertson said he believes that the desire to be a Christian steward flows naturally from an encounter with the living God.
"Offering one's time, talent, and treasure is a visible way to evangelize, because it demonstrates how faith evolves into caring for others," he noted. "Whatever gifts you have been given can be combined with your own passion under the direction of the Holy Spirit. When someone says yes to the Spirit's invitation to share the great gift of faith in Jesus Christ through service, the Spirit opens the door and lights the way."
"We need the person, the presence, and the power of the Holy Spirit to do the work of evangelization. The Spirit is really the evangelizer."
Suffering can also be a path to stewardship, Robertson added.
Joseph, he said, was an example of someone whose stewardship was born and nurtured in great suffering.
"He was the target of envious brothers, was thrown into a pit, was sold into slavery, unjustly accused of crimes, and put in prison, yet he became one of the greatest stewards in the Bible because he used his suffering to prepare himself for the Lord's work. In spite of rejection, false accusations, etc., Joseph didn't curse his enemies, nor did he nurse his wounds or rehearse his problems. He dispersed everything to God and God reversed the situation. Everything became a stepping stone so he could do what he had been prepared to do, which was to feed God's people in time of famine."
When Joseph was reconciled with his brothers and father, said Robertson, he told them that what they meant for evil, God had turned to good.
"Like Joseph, even when we have had tremendous difficulty and suffering, we can look back later see that God has intended to turn evil into good if we accept His way."
Robertson was evangelizing door-to-door in Northern Ireland in 1992-3 when he witnessed stewardship in the most dire circumstances.
"It was a war zone, the very tense time of the Irish `troubles,' where you were often stopped by soldiers and asked to show your ID. I knocked on a door one day and a woman invited me into her tiny living room and told me of the tragic loss of her 16-year-old-son, her husband, and her brother. She had no bitterness and was a great example of faith because she considered herself a child of God. When I asked her who Jesus Christ was to her, she answered that He was `everything, my whole life.'
"She saw herself as God's little girl who would one day be reunited with him. When I asked her how she was able to survive, she replied that everyone needed to pray and to forgive because `somehow this has to stop.'
"I think she was a Christian steward at a more profound level than we normally think of as stewardship. Through her acceptance of suffering she reflected the suffering Christ for others in the world, including me and the religious sister who was with me on the mission."
It's important to remember, said Robertson, that Christians are stewards of a person, Jesus Christ, and of His message.
"We are temples of His Spirit and tabernacles of the Lord, Whom we carry in us. We have been given this treasure in an earthen vessel, and the grace to be stewards comes from the person of Christ. We are called on to bring forward the person of Jesus Christ so that people can come to conversion and the life He has prepared for them."
Robertson called the flourishing of lay movements which emerged from the Second Vatican Council "a spiritual earthquake" that put a new emphasis on the importance of lay stewardship in the life of the Church.
He is grateful, he said, that it has been sustained by the Holy Fathers from Pope John XXIII through to Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, and that the call for lay movements which arose from the Council has continued.
"We are stewards of a new evangelization, asked to present again the person of Jesus Christ to the world," said Robertson, who is kept busy round the clock these days praying for the many who come to him desperate for help and healing for their lives.
"We have a world where so many are hurting," he told The B.C. Catholic.
"Marriages are in deep trouble and many family members are estranged from each other and unable to reconnect. We need to surrender to the Holy Spirit and to the grace which He offers us to reconnect to each other, to God, and to His Son, Jesus Christ."