Photo: Felix Carroll
A little rain never hurt John Canavan. He strolls the grounds of Eden Hill during Friday's rainstorm.
Meet God's Comic
By Felix Carroll (Jun 8, 2013)
There are, of course, a few things John Canavan doesn't find to be a laughing matter. Topping the list are spreading Divine Mercy, caring for his family, sharing about the priest who sacrificed his life to save John's wife, and honoring his grandmother's words of wisdom.
But John counts on God having a sense of humor. If he's wrong, well, he'll have some explaining to do upon his death. In the meantime, the professional comedian, masterful raconteur, and Divine Mercy promoter from Australia will continue to proselytize in the way that comes naturally to him — with a delivery intended to be as much conscious-shifting as it is sidesplitting.
So when he steps up to the podium at a Divine Mercy conference and speaks of his push to bring men back to the faith, he'll jokingly tell the crowd he's starting a new men's magazine called Prayboy. "It's R-rated," he'll say, "but the R is for 'religious.'"
OK, maybe not his best material. How about his more self-deprecatory stuff:
You know you're old when your back goes out more than you do.
You know you're old when you're at the breakfast table early in the morning and you hear "snap, crackle, pop" and you haven't even opened the cereal box yet.
You know you're old when your doctor hands you medication and tells you that you have to take it for the rest of your life, but he's only handed you two pills.
What Changes, What Stays the Same
The years have, indeed, piled up since John first teamed up with the Marians in 1993 to lead the Australian Divine Mercy Apostolate. He was 32 then. He's 53 now. The red hair he once sported has turned mostly "off-white," as he says. He now has six children.
Do you know the difference between a 17-year-old daughter and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.
But most of the important things have remained unchanged. Namely, he's as convinced now as ever that St. Faustina's Divine Mercy revelations are God's gift to mankind in the modern age, a gift that continues to strengthen the Church, change hearts, change minds, and change the world. It's working. He sees the fruits everyday. Priests continue to tell him that a single homily on Divine Mercy can result in large lines to the confessional.
What else is he convinced of? That Satan hates Divine Mercy because it stands as the greatest threat to the evil one's efforts to entrap mankind in sin and brokenness. "Anyone who works on the frontlines of spreading Divine Mercy can tell you how the devil continues to try to make your life very difficult — your family life, your financial life," says John.
He also remains convinced that with every cross placed upon his shoulder, God will give him the strength to bear the load.
"I've learned when you put your trust in God, He won't necessarily give you what you want; rather, He'll give you what you need," John says.
He relies on a mnemonic using the word trust:
"I keep saying that," he says.
Joined by his sons Justin, 18, and John Paul, 11, John paid a visit to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy last week. The purpose, primarily, was to say goodbye to Fran Bourdon, the recently retired executive director of the Association of Marian Helpers. He also wanted to get away from his native Australia for a couple weeks with his boys. He needed a breather. The boys needed a pilgrimage. Though only 11 years old, John Paul feels he has a religious calling.
And so there is a grace — one grace of many.
An Amazing Grace
John shared some recent graces he's received. One occurred two years ago. His beloved wife, Karen, had become gravely ill. They feared it might have been cancer or an autoimmune disease. John made haste to ask his Capuchin priest-friend Fr. Dennis Ward to pray for her.
A week later, Fr. Ward called John and asked him to meet him at the church. When John arrived, Fr. Ward proceeded to tell him of what happened when he knelt down before the tabernacle to pray for Karen. He told John that he found himself saying, "God, if it's Your holy will, can I take on Karen's sufferings?"
"Within a week he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and Karen's sufferings disappeared," John says, still visibly moved.
As Fr. Ward got sicker, he explained to John why he offered himself up as a sacrifice to save Karen. "You're like family," the priest said. "Australia needs Divine Mercy. If God takes Karen, you'll be hopeless. Your six children need their mother, and you need your wife."
Within 10 months, Fr. Ward was dead.
"There have been so many graces," says John, "so many confirmations that God is watching out for the ministry."
A Full-Service Ministry
From his small office outside of Melbourne, John and Karen and 10 volunteers fulfill orders for Divine Mercy books such as the Diary of St. Faustina, and pamphlets and prayer cards published by Marian Press. They send materials throughout Australia and Oceana. Over the years, they've distributed more than a million pieces of literature.
John gives away for free many of the materials. He often lives on the brink of poverty. There have been plenty of times when the whole ministry has been on the verge of collapse due to finances, but God provides — sometimes at the 11th hour, sometimes at the 13th hour.
"You don't have to be Einstein to run the apostolate," John says. "But it's the counseling, it's the people who ring you up and say how long they've been away from the faith — they're the ones who serve as a reminder of how important this work is. I even often offer to arrange for callers to go to confession. I'll even drive them there.
"I recently took a woman to confession," John continues. "She was in there for 40 minutes, and she came out crying and relieved. She unloaded so much guilt she had been carrying. She later told me that from that day forward she was able to sleep perfectly. She hadn't been able to sleep much before.
"Divine Mercy," John continues, "is bringing people back to the faith."
Indeed, St. Faustina's revelations are what brought John himself back to the faith. It took many years, many reckless turns, and much tragedy to reach that point.
Death, Anger, and a Grandmother's Love
His separation from God started when he was 21. Without warning, his 23-year-old sister became ill and died before his very eyes from a brain hemorrhage.
"She was my closest family member," John says. "That turned me totally away from God. I became very bitter, very angry."
That anger spread into nearly all aspects of his life, including his relationship with the rest of his family. But his devout grandmother never gave up on him. One day she came up to him and planted a thought that would blossom years later. She said, "When you have nowhere to turn, trust in Jesus and ask Our Lady to help you."
He began working in entertainment — comedy, mostly. While it was financially profitable, he knew his life was spiritually bankrupt. God came knocking one evening in the form of a priest.
"I was doing some entertainment at the time," he recalls, "and he came through the crowd afterwards and said, 'I see on the outside there's a smile, but on the inside you're hurting. God doesn't want to know you only when you're happy, but when you're sad as well.'"
After several more bouts with hardship — losing his job, the early death of a friend, breaking up with his girlfriend, and burning nearly all the bridges in his life — John had no place to turn. "But the words my grandmother said were implanted in my heart: 'When you have no where to turn, trust in Jesus and ask Our Lady to help you,'" John says. "For one moment, I looked at my grandmother's life, all the tragedies she endured in her lifetime, and I thought, 'Maybe there is something to having faith,' because when she saw me go through all the trouble in my life, she never condemned me, she just prayed."
So he went to church for the first time in many years. He just sat there for 45 minutes and cried and asked God to help him.
"I think that was the first time that I really opened up my heart," he says.
Eventually he was given a copy of St. Faustina's Diary. "I opened it up, and it summed up my whole life," John says. "Jesus says to her, 'The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy' (723). Then, I knew the rays of mercy. They were able to touch me, and gradually over the next few months I spent more and more time in the church, and I started to learn more and more about my faith."
He made his grandmother proud.
"She took me by the hand one day and said, 'I prayed the Rosary for 25 years that someone in our family would take over the faith when I die,' and then she laughed and said, 'But I never thought Our Lady would choose you.'"
"It's amazing to think there was a time in my life when I thought I should just drive straight into a river. But I never did, thank God," John says. "I didn't believe in God, but God believed in me. Through spreading the message of Divine Mercy, more and more people are learning every day that God believes in them."
All seriousness aside, John once prayed for wisdom.
"Instead," he says, "God just gave me wisdom teeth."