Bro. Carlos Ona stands before the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, during a retreat prior to making his solemn vows.
September 9, 2013
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Carlos Ona followed the signs. Now, at 38 and a Franciscan friar, Ona looks back and sees "there were so many signs God was directing me to this life. I just followed them."
Born in a small town in the Philippines, Ona was the youngest of six children. His mother Julita was very devout - "She would always drag us to the church." Carlos' father Fraterno was a public transit driver.
When Ona reached Grade 6, he was encouraged by his parish priest and his mother to enter the seminary. "I really didn't want to go," remembers Ona. "It was the summer and I wanted to play in Manila."
When he graduated from Our Lady of Mercy High School, Ona went on to university, completing his bachelor's degree in computer science. His studies served him well and he worked with a prominent company as an application specialist and programmer.
But at 27, Ona, "looking for greener pastures," came to Vancouver as an immigrant. "I didn't know anyone. It was a risky move."
He found work as a metal cleaner. Loneliness prompted him to turn to his Filipino community and he joined Singles for Christ. "I took the 12-week Christian life program at St. Mary's in Vancouver and became involved in various ministries."
Seminars and retreats filled his life and Ona found his faith uplifted. Inspired by lay speakers, he went on a discernment retreat with the Vancouver Archdiocese in 2004.
Emotion fills his voice as he recalls that time in his life. "I was really confused. Should I enter the seminary or get married? I was going out at that time with someone."
Ona's spiritual director was a Dominican, and when he attended the Dominican's ordination, "I was crying. At that moment, I felt different. The lady beside me said 'I would be happy if one day you would be ordained as a priest.' And at the reception the words 'I will make you fishers of men,' caught my attention."
Ona found himself confused and conflicted.
"I was really in deep thought. What will I do with my life? I came to Canada to work, to support my family. God, what is happening? Help me. There is something inside me going on."
Ona knows God helps those who help themselves. So he searched for every spiritual book he could find. "And I went to Mass after work every day."
Finally he asked God for a sign, a very specific sign. "There were so many options out there, I did not know which one to choose."
What sign did he ask for? "Blue roses. And then I went on my way, going to work every day and I forgot about it."
Several months later, a friend called asking him to come to Mass on Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He also asked him to bring flowers.
Ona was irked. "It takes me an hour and half to get downtown on the bus and you are asking me to pick up flowers? But I agreed."
He stopped at a flower shop and looked over the various blooms.
"And then I saw a sign. 'Blue roses.'"
He remembered asking for a sign and at Mass asked God, "Is this it Lord? Is this the sign? Do you want me to go to the seminary? After Mass I was so happy, I was so relieved. God is there listening."
So he entered Christ the King Seminary in Mission, B.C.
"Studies were bit of a struggle but I was really happy. The school system here is different. There were a lot of adjustments that I had to do."
But his journey was not over.
One night, Ona read the story of St. Francis and found himself crying. "I wanted to follow his ideal."
Ona's spiritual director did not know of his yearning. But before a meeting with his director, Ona prayed that if his director mentioned anything about St. Francis, "This might be it. God is calling me to the Franciscan order."
After the opening prayer, the spiritual director handed Ona a leaflet titled Prayerful Joy of St. Francis and Brother Leo.
Ona said, "Father, you must be kidding. Before I came, I prayed if you mentioned anything about St. Francis then it might mean God is calling me to the Franciscan order."
The director replied, "There you go Carlos. You got the sign."
But his path was not smooth. Invited by a friend to come and spend Easter in Edmonton in 2007, he stayed with the Franciscans for five days and left thinking, "It wasn't for me."
"But prayer always helps to reach the right answer."
So he came to Edmonton to start the master of divinity program at Newman Theological College and was told there was no Franciscan postulancy program that year. "I was so disappointed."
But changes occurred, and Ona was able to start his novitiate.
Now he uses his university education to develop the Franciscans' website and does desktop publishing for the order. "I also volunteered with the IT department at the Archdiocese of Edmonton."
It has been six years, and Ona made his profession of solemn vows Aug. 23 in Cochrane and is now in Victoria.
Years passed "really quick and now I am going to profess as a full-fledged brother of the Franciscan order," says Ona. "Those six years weren't joy, joy, joy. There were struggles along the way. But if you overcome those challenges, it is really a source of joy and peace."
Asked about his hopes for the future, Ona says, "I am hoping for the order to become more lively, with more young vibrant friars. And I want to bring the joy that I feel to the people and be faithful to the Gospel life."