He didn’t have much time left, but Father Hilton chose to thrive on the promises, inspiring millions and changing lives
My journey through life has not been very smooth, but from the moment I decided to follow Christ, my life has never been the same. With the Cross of Christ before me and the world behind me I can firmly say, “There’s no turning back…”
During my schooldays at Bede’s College in Mentone, I felt a strong calling from within. I had great mentors there including Brother Owen who inspired and fostered my love for Jesus. At the tender age of 17, I joined the Missionaries of Sacred Heart. After 10 years of study, including a stint at the University of Canberra and a Theology degree in Melbourne, I was finally ordained.
My first appointment was in Papua New Guinea, where I received a practical grounding living amongst simple people with a great sense of living in the present moment. Later, I was sent to Paris to study liturgy. Doctoral studies in Rome were interrupted by tension headaches which prevented me from completing it. And soon it became clear that my calling was not to teach in the seminary. On my return to Australia, I got involved in parish ministry and had a taste of 16 parishes in several different states across the country. I was revitalized by my involvement with two fabulous movements which nurture and revive marriage and family life—Teams of Our Lady and Marriage Encounter.
I felt content. Life was going very well. But all of a sudden, on 22nd of July 2015, everything changed. It didn’t come totally out of the blue. Over the past six months, I had seen blood in the urine on a couple of occasions. But now I was unable to even pass urine. In the middle of the night, I drove myself to the hospital. After a series of tests, I received alarming news. I had been diagnosed with kidney cancer which had already reached the fourth stage. I found myself in a state of shock. I felt cut off from normal people. The doctor had informed me that even with the medications, I could only expect to live for another three and half years. I could not help thinking about my sister’s tiny children. I would never see these charming toddlers grow up.
Until this crisis occurred, I had loved praying the morning meditations but from then on I struggled. After a while, I found an easier way to meditate. Resting before the Lord’s presence, I repeated a mantra inspired by Dante, “Your Will is my peace.” This simple form of meditation enabled me to restore my peace and trust in God. But as I went about my normal day, I found it much more difficult. I was often distracted by thoughts such as ‘I wouldn’t be around much longer…’
After three months of treatment, tests were done to see if the medication was working well. The results were positive. There was significant reduction in most areas, and I was advised to consult a surgeon to remove the offending kidney. I felt a burst of relief because in the back of my mind I doubted if the medication was really working. So this was really great news. After the operation, I recuperated and returned to being a parish priest.
This time around, I felt more energized towards evangelization. Not knowing how long I would be able to do this work, I put all my heart into everything I engaged in. Every six months, tests were done. Initially, the results were good, but after a while the medicine I had been taking became less effective. Cancer began to grow in my lungs and in my back, giving me sciatica and causing me to hobble. I had to undergo chemotherapy and start a whole new immunotherapy treatment. It was disappointing, but not a surprise. Anybody who is on a journey with cancer knows that things change. You can be well one moment and next moment disaster strikes.
A beautiful friend of mine, who has been a nurse in the oncology department for many years, gave me the best advice: Go on living your life as normally as you can. Have coffee if you enjoy coffee, or have a meal with friends. Keep doing the normal things.
I loved being a priest and felt excited by the wonderful things happening in our parish. Even though the journey was no longer smooth, I still loved what I did. I always loved celebrating the Mass and ministering the Sacraments. It is something I held very precious and I am always grateful to God for this great privilege.
I had a strong conviction that we really need to make greater efforts to turn around the dwindling number of people coming to the Church by being proactive. In our parish we endeavored to make Sunday more engaging. Since I had always loved the contemplative side of our Church, I wanted to create an oasis of prayer and peace by bringing a little bit of the monastic spirit into our parish. So every Monday night, we held a contemplative, candlelit Mass with soothing contemplative music. Instead of giving a sermon, I read a reflection.
One of the songs that touched me deeply is the GRAMMY winning single “10,000 reasons (Bless the Lord) by Matt Redman. Whenever I sang the third verse of the song, I almost choked up.
And on that day
when my strength is failing.
The end draws near
And my time has come
Still my soul will
Sing your praise unending
Ten thousand years
And then forevermore
I found it so moving because what we are ultimately trying to do is to give praise to God and develop our relationship with Jesus. Despite my illness, it was one of the most exciting times in my life as a priest. It reminded me of the words Jesus spoke, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” John 10:10
“My husband who is not a Catholic and only beginning to learn about faith got to know Father John by chance. Later he said ‘From what I know about this guy, Jesus… Father John seems to be just like Him. To know you are going to die and continue to give of yourself more and more even though the people around you don’t realize that these are your last days…” – Kaitlyn McDonnell
“One of the things John was very clear about was his purpose in life. He was an absolute driver and really made Jesus real in this world. I would often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been that strong in terms of his faith and values. It might have been very challenging for him but every Sunday when we met him, he had the same energy. Regardless of what happened around him or with him or to him, he had a sense of serenity around him. It was an incredible gift.” – Dennis Hoiberg
“We had to remind him that he had limitations, but that didn’t slow him down. He was such an inspiration because here’s a man who’s been told you’ve got a limited time. Yet he still kept giving instead of getting overcome by his disease and thinking about it.” – Shaun Sunnasy
Late Father John Hilton Rate passed away on 22nd of September 2019 after a long and protracted fight with cancer. At the time of his death, Father Rate was the Parish priest at Henley Beach, Australia. The article is based on an inspiring talk shared by Father John Hilton Rate in the Shalom World program “TRIUMPH”. To watch the episode visit: shalomworld.org/ show/triumph
The world’s greatest treasure is within the reach of every person! The reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is something great and marvelous. I know that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist from my own experience not just because the Church teaches this truth. The First Touch One of the experiences I had that helped increase my faith in the Lord was after I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in my early days in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. I was still not a priest at that time. I was leading a prayer meeting and during this meeting, we were praying over people. We had the Eucharist exposed for Adoration and then people would come one by one to be prayed over. A woman came asking me to pray over her with folded hands and I thought she was praying. She asked me to pray for her husband who had a problem with his foot. But as I was praying, I felt in my heart that the Lord wanted to heal her. So I asked her if she needed any kind of physical healing. She told me, “My hands are like this because I have frozen shoulder.” She had a problem of mobility with her hands. As we were praying for her healing she said that a great heat came out from the Eucharist, descended on her frozen shoulder and she was healed then and there. That was the first time I actually saw such healing taking place through the power of the Eucharist. It’s exactly as we have in the Gospels—people touched Jesus and power came out of Him and healed them. Unforgettable Moment I have had another powerful experience of the Eucharist in my life. Once I was praying with somebody who was involved in the occult, and she needed a deliverance. We were praying as a group and there was a priest with us. But this woman, who was on the floor couldn’t see the priest who was bringing the Eucharist inside the church to the sacristy. The exact moment the priest brought the Eucharist, from her mouth, a male violent voice said these words: “Remove Him whom you’ve got in your hands!” It choked me because the demon did not say ‘it’- a piece of bread, but “Him”. Satan recognizes the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I will never forget that moment of my life. When I became a priest later, I kept those two incidences in my heart to really believe and preach the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Unspeakable Joy As a priest I had one another experience which I will not forget. I attend prison ministry when I am not preaching around. Once I was giving communion to a particular division in the prison and had the Eucharist with me. Suddenly I felt in my heart the joy of Jesus in giving himself to the prisoners. This is something I cannot explain to you. If you could only experience and know the joy Jesus has in the Eucharist to come into each and every one of us! Another experience I have had of the Blessed Sacrament was a personal, emotional healing for myself. Once somebody who was in the church really hurt me with his words. It wasn’t easy and I was starting to get angry. Although I am not aggressive by nature, this hurt stirred up a lot of feelings and bad thoughts against this person. I fled to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and just cried. In that moment I felt His love, for that person who hurt me, radiating out from the Eucharist and entering into my heart. Jesus in the Eucharist healed me, but more than that, as a priest it helped me to realize where the real source of love and healing is in our lives. Not only for me as a priest, but for married persons and young people - who can really give the love that we are looking for? Where can we find love that is greater than sin and hatred? It’s in Him, present in the Eucharist. The Lord gave me so much love for the person who hurt me. On the eve of the day I was going to make my first vows, a sudden darkness entered into my heart. I went straight to the tabernacle instead of finding my new room in the community. Then from the depths of the heart I heard the Lord telling me, “Hayden, you are coming here for me.” And suddenly all the joy came back. In the Eucharist Jesus taught me one very important thing about my life as a Franciscan priest—He has called me for Him, I exist for Him. The Eucharist teaches every one of us that we can do nothing apart from Jesus—it’s not about us, it’s JUST ABOUT HIM. We are in the Church to be with Him! As a priest, celebrating the Eucharist is the most wonderful moment I have with the Lord and it also brings me closer to the Christian community. It is Jesus in the Eucharist who is the source of communion between us. As a priest, I cannot live without the Eucharist. What is the greatest thing we can ask Jesus when we receive Him in our hearts? It is asking Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit once again. When Jesus was resurrected, He breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles. When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, He gives us once again the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ask Him to fill you with the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit. Broken for you Once when I was lifting up the Host and breaking it, I got this deep conviction regarding the priesthood. We look at the people through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is a broken body. A priest should be like that. He breaks his life so that he can give it to the community and the rest of world. One can also discover this beauty in the married life. Love is like the Eucharist. You have to break yourself in order to give yourself. The Eucharist has taught me how to live a celibate life, how to be Jesus for the community, giving my whole life for them. The same thing has to happen in married life. Finally, I can tell you that whenever I have felt lonely or down, just going near him—is enough to receive all the strength that I need, even if I am tired or sleepy. I can’t count the number of times I have experienced this in my travels and in my preaching. The best rest is to get closer to Him. I can assure you; He can renew us physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Because in the Eucharist Jesus is ALIVE—He is there for us!
Today if you clearly hear what God wants you to do...dare to do it! “Become a monk first.” Those were the words I received from God when I was 21 years old; 21 years old with the sort of plans and interests that would be expected of an average 21-year-old. I had plans to graduate from college within a year. Plans to serve in youth ministry, while working as a stuntman in Hollywood. I fancied I might move to the Philippines one day, and spend some time living among tribes on a remote island. And of course, marriage and children had a very strong appeal. These aspirations among others were arrested swiftly when God spoke those four unmistakable words. Some enthusiastic Christians express envy when I tell them about how God made His will explicit for my life. They often say, “I wish God would speak to me that way.” In response to this, I wish to offer some clarification on God’s pattern of speech based on my personal experience. God does not speak until we are ready to hear and receive what He has to say. What He has to say may determine how long it takes before we are ready. Until we can hear and receive God’s word, He will simply wait; and God can wait a very long time, as illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. More importantly, those who wait on Him are esteemed throughout Scripture. I should preface my calling to become a monk with details about how my vocation really began, when I started reading the Church Fathers as an adolescent, or more accurately, when I started reading the Bible daily. Factoring in these details shows that it took seven years of discernment before I could receive just four words from God. Digging into Books I hated reading as a child. Sitting in a stuffy room with a book for hours on end made no sense when endless adventures were lying just outside my door. However, the imperative to read my Bible daily posed an unresolvable dilemma. Every Evangelical knows that any Christian who allows dust to collect on the Good Book is not much of a Christian. But how could I study Sacred Scripture as someone who hated reading? By the influence and example of a youth pastor, I gritted my teeth and set myself to the task of laboring over God’s Word one book at a time. The more I read, the more I began to ask questions. More questions led me to reading more books for more answers. Teenagers are intense by nature. Subtlety is something they learn later in life, which is why the Church Fathers left me so enamored as a young man. Ignatius was not subtle. Origen was not refined. The Church Fathers were extreme in every sense, renouncing earthly goods, residing in the desert, and often sacrificing their lives for the Lord. As an adolescent with proclivities toward the extreme, I found no one who could rival the Church Fathers. No MMA fighter could compare with Perpetua. No surfer was gnarlier than the Shepherd of Hermas. And yet, what these early radicals cared about was nothing other than imitating the life of Christ as modeled in the Bible. Furthermore, all were in consensus on leading a life of celibacy and contemplation. The paradox was striking to me. Being extreme like the Church Fathers entailed a lifestyle that, on the surface, appeared rather mundane. More questions to ponder. Talking Back With graduation on the horizon, I was torn by a couple job offers that would determine denominational affiliation, as well as prospective institutions for further education after college. At the time, my Anglican priest advised me to bring the matter to God in prayer. How I should serve Him was ultimately His decision, not mine. And what better place to discern the will of God in prayer than a monastery? On Easter Sunday, a woman I had never met approached me at St. Andrew’s Abbey, saying “I am praying for you, and I love you.” After asking for my name, she advised me to read the first chapter of Luke, saying “this will help you determine your vocation.” I kindly thanked her, and did as she instructed. As I sat on the chapel lawn reading about John the Baptist’s origin story, I noticed several parallels between our lives. I will not stray into all the details here. All I will say is that it was the most intimate experience I ever had with God’s Word. It felt like the passage was written for me in that very moment. I continued to pray and wait for God’s direction on the grassy lawn. Would He direct me to accepting a position in Newport Beach, or back home in San Pedro? Hours passed by as I patiently listened. Suddenly, an unexpected voice popped in my mind; “Become a monk first.” This was startling, as it was not the answer I was looking for. Entering a monastery after graduation was the last thing on my mind. Besides, I had a vibrant and colorful life to live. I stubbornly pushed God’s voice aside, attributing it to be some wild idea that rose from my subconsciousness. Returning to prayer, I listened for God to make His will evident to me. Next, an image captured my mind; three dry river beds appeared. Somehow, I knew that one represented San Pedro my hometown, another represented Newport, but the river bed in the middle signified becoming a monk. Against my will, the riverbed in the middle began overflowing with white water. What I saw was completely out of my control; I couldn’t not see it. At this point I became afraid. Either I was going mad, or God was calling me to something unexpected. Undeniable The bell tolled as tears trickled down my cheeks. It was time for Vespers. I shuffled into the chapel along with the monks. As we chanted the Psalms, my weeping grew uncontrollable. I could no longer keep up with the chanting. I remember feeling embarrassed about the mess I must have looked like. As the brethren filed out one by one, I remained in the chapel. Lying prostrate in front of the altar, I began to weep harder than I ever have in my entire life. What felt strange was the complete lack of emotion to accompany the weeping. There was neither sorrow nor anger, just sobs. The only explanation I could attribute to the downpour of tears and snot, was the touch of the Holy Spirit. It was undeniable that God was calling me to the monastic life. I went to bed that night with eyes swollen but peace knowing God’s path for me. The next morning I promised God I would follow His bidding, seeking to become a monk first and foremost. I am Not Done Yet? Although God is punctual at times, as with Moses on Mt. Sinai or Elijah on Mt. Carmel, more often than not, His words are inopportune. We can’t presume that by putting our lives on hold, God will be forced to speak up. He is not manipulatable in the slightest. Thus, we are left with no choice but to carry on with our humdrum tasks until we nearly forget about Him—this is when He shows up. Young Samuel heard God’s voice precisely when Samuel was attending to his daily (mundane) duties, i.e., ensuring the tabernacle candle remain lit. There are vocations within vocations; callings within callings. Thus, a student may very well hear God speak in the middle of attending to her algebra problem. A single mother may receive a word from God while quietly sitting in traffic on the 405 freeway. The point is to watch and wait always, for we do not know when the Master will appear. This gives rise to a question; Why is a word from God so infrequent and ambiguous? God gives us just the amount of clarity we need to follow Him; no more. The Mother of God received a word without much clarification. The prophets, who constantly received revelations from Him, were often perplexed. John the Baptist, who was the first to recognize the Messiah, second guessed himself later on. Even the disciples, Jesus’ closest kin, were constantly confused by the words of our Lord. Those who hear God speak are left with more questions, not answers. God told me to become a monk, but He did not say how or where. Much of my own vocation He left up to me to figure out. It would take four years before my calling was realized; four years (within which I visited eighteen other monasteries) before I was granted entry to St. Andrew’s. Confusion, doubt, and second guessing, are all part of the lengthy process of discernment. Moreover, God does not speak in a vacuum. His words are preceded and followed by the words of others. A youth pastor, an Anglican priest, an oblate of St. Andrew’s—these acted as God’s vassals. Hearing their words was essential before I could receive God’s. My vocation remains incomplete. It is still being discovered, still being realized every day. I’ve been a monk for six years now. Just this year I professed solemn vows. One might say I’ve done what God told me to do. Be that as it may, God is not done speaking. He did not stop speaking after the first day of Creation, and He will not stop until His magnum opus is complete. Who knows what He will say or when He will speak next? God has a history of having very strange things to say. Our part is to watch and wait for whatever He has in store.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, a sinner.” These words have been the battle cry of my life. Even in my earliest years, they were my motto, when I didn’t even realize. Mercy. If God had a middle name, it would be “Mercy”. Mercy held my hand every time I walked into the confessional. Mercy saved me time and time again, while enveloping my soul and pardoning me. My faith journey began decades ago when my parents chose for me what I couldn’t yet choose for myself—baptism into the Catholic Church. I was raised to know right from wrong. And I suffered the consequences when I veered off track. My parents took their roles seriously and took pride in teaching me about Jesus and the Church. They were God’s hands in my life, forming my conscience through His grace. As I grew, I hungered and thirsted for more of Him. Yet, the world and my own struggles with fear and anxiety got in the way. Vacillation between good and bad plagued my life for years. I called it “walking a tightrope between heaven and hell.” During college, I recall standing drunk at 1 AM in a bar bathroom, downing my drink while I prayed the Rosary, afraid that I would miss even a day of praying it. As I look back on moments like this that illustrated my internal tug of war, I am reminded of Mercy. I knew who I belonged to, but I was tempted to wander. An innate struggle caused by original sin permeates our lives whether we can name it or not: Our deepest desire for Christ is opposed by the allurements of the world and the evil one. Yet Mercy has pulled me out of the gutter of sin, cleaned me of the muck and washed me anew. Mercy has waited for my call, sitting by the phone at all hours of the night until I was ready to be picked up and brought home. Mercy has pulled me from going under, supporting me like a life vest. Mercy has listened to the screaming, the tears, the angry words, and held me close as I settled. Mercy has held me patiently as I fought back again and again. Mercy is the end. The beginning. My everything in between. The God of Mercy has waited for me, pursued me, and forgiven me for as long as I have known him. And by His grace, He has assured me that He is always there, arms outstretched, loving and forgiving again and again.
When troubles come, how quick are we to think that nobody understands what we are going through? In almost every church, we find a crucifix hanging above the altar. This image of our Savior does not present Him crowned with jewels sitting on a throne, nor descending on a cloud carried by angels, but rather as a man, wounded, stripped of basic human dignity, and enduring the most humiliating and painful form of execution. We see a person who has loved and lost, who has been hurt and betrayed. We see a person just like us. And yet, in the face of this evidence, when we ourselves suffer, how quick we are to lament that nobody understands us, nobody knows what we’re going through? We make quick assumptions and sink into a place of isolation bound by inconsolable sorrow. A Change of Course A few years ago my life changed forever. I had always been a healthy child, a ballet dancer with dreams I had already begun to realize by the time I turned twelve. I had regularly attended Sunday school and felt drawn to God but had never done much about it, so I went on enjoying my life, my time with friends, and dancing lead roles at top ballet schools. I was content with my life. I knew God was there, but He was always over there. I trusted Him, but never thought very much about Him. Yet in eighth grade, at the peak of my childhood dance career, my health started to plummet, and four years later I still have not recovered. It all began just one week after performing in a ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House, the day after I received the sacrament of Confirmation, and two weeks before I was to attend a summer intensive at the second most prestigious dance school in the United States. A bad strain of ligaments in my foot aggravated a previously undiscovered break in my ankle bone which now required surgery. Then I developed appendicitis, requiring another surgery. The two surgeries in close succession caused severe damage to my neurological and immune systems and weakened me to a point that no doctor could treat or even fully understand my situation. As I continued to push my body to continue ballet, my body pushed back and I ended up fracturing my spine, ending my ballet career.” Throughout the year leading up to my Confirmation, I experienced Jesus in ways I never had before. I saw His love and mercy magnified through study of the Gospels and discussions of His ministry. I started going to church every Sunday and experienced the power of the Eucharist. Before the confirmation classes with my parish priest, no one had ever taught me so clearly about Jesus’ love for me. His instruction clarified my growing understanding of who God truly is. Jesus, who I’d always known to be my Savior, was now my dearest friend and becoming my greatest love. He wasn’t just a statue hanging in the church, a character in stories; He was real, and He was the embodiment of Truth, Truth I had never known I was seeking. Through that year of study I made the decision to fully live my life for Jesus. I wanted nothing more than to become more like Him. Since my injury, as my health bounced up and down and took me off the path I expected to be on forever, I struggled to remain hopeful. I lost ballet and even some friends. I could barely get out of bed to go to school, and when I did make it, I couldn’t stay the entire day. The life I had always known was crumbling and I needed to understand why. Why did I have to suffer so much and lose so much? Did I do something wrong? Would it lead to something good? Each time I started to heal, some new health issue arose and knocked me down again. Yet even at my lowest points, Jesus always pulled me back to my feet, and back to Him. Finding Purpose I learned to offer my suffering to God for the sake of others and watched it change their lives for the better. As things were taken away, space was made for better opportunities. For instance, not being able to dance ballet gave me the space to photograph the dancers at my ballet school and showcase their talent. I finally had spare time to attend my brother’s football games and started taking photos of him in action. I soon ended up photographing the whole team, including boys who never had anyone come out to watch them play, let alone capture their skills in a photograph. When I could hardly walk, I would sit and make rosaries to give to others. As I began to feel worse physically, my heart grew lighter because I was given the chance not merely to live for myself, but to live for God and see His love and compassion at work in others and in my own heart. Listening to Jesus Yet it is not always easy for me to find the good in suffering. I often find myself wishing the pain would be taken away, wishing I could live a normal life without physical agony. Yet one evening last March I received clear insight into my eternal questions. I was in adoration, sitting on the hard wood of the church pew, gazing at the crucifix in the dull candlelight and for the first time I wasn’t just looking at the crucifix—I was truly seeing it. My body ached all over. My wrists and ankles throbbed painfully, my back hurt from the latest injury, my head was tender from a chronic migraine, and every so often, a sharp pain pierced my ribs and knocked me to the ground. Before me, Jesus hung from the cross with nails through His wrists and ankles, wounds from the whips lacerating His back, a crown of thorns painfully thrust upon His head, and a gash between His ribs where the spear had pierced His side–a spear that was meant to ensure He was dead. A thought struck me so forcefully, that I nearly fell over in the pew. Every pain I felt, even the smallest suffering, my Savior felt as well. My back pain and headaches, even my conviction that nobody else could understand, He understands it all because He experienced it too, and continues to bear it with us. Suffering is not a punishment, but a gift we can use to grow closer to God and to shape our character. While physically I have lost a lot, spiritually I have gained. When all that we think is so important gets stripped away, then we can see what truly matters. That night in adoration as I looked at Jesus’ wounds so similar to my own, I realized that if He bore it all for me, then I can bear it all for Him. If we want to be more like Jesus, we’re going to have to walk the same journey He did, Cross and all. But He will never leave us to walk alone. We need only to look at the Cross and remember He is right there walking beside us through it all.
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