Priests Promoting Priestly Vocations

 I want to begin this morning by thanking Fr. Donncha and his colleagues for the invitation to speak at this year’s Priests’ Seminar here in Lismullin. I have attended these conferences as a priest for a number of years and always found them most encouraging and affirming. In recent years I was delighted to chair some of the sessions, back in 2011 when Mgr. Joseph Murphy spoke on ‘Priest, Man of Joy’ and last year when the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown reflected on the second encyclical of St. John XXIII ‘Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia’. The topic this morning brings something of both excellent addresses together ‘Priests Promoting Priestly Vocations’ and it is one very close to my heart, and not just some bandwagon I have jumped onto since being ordained Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin in August 2013!

I will begin with that Ordination Date – August 4th 2013 – the feastday of St. John Vianney, the patron of all priests. Choosing that date was very important to me, as it has allowed me to establish a clear emphasis on the priesthood from the very get-go of my episcopacy in Kildare & Leighlin. The diocese has indeed a very proud historic tradition. The Kildare end owes its origin to St. Brigid in 470 AD and St. Conleth in 490 AD, Conleth becoming the first Bishop of Kildare; St. Erc of my native parish of Slane was, we are told by historians, an intimate friend of St. Brigid and he took an active part in the consecration of Conleth. What does ‘an active part’ in the consecration suggest? Well he was obviously invited and had an important role there. The Leighlin end can be traced back to St. Laserian. It’s Laserian we thank for determining the date of Easter following a Synod at Leighlin in 630 AD. Both dioceses were amalgamated in 1678 by St. Oliver Plunkett, the Loughcrew man who became Archbishop of Armagh. The union of Leighlin and Kildare was deemed necessary because there were insufficient funds to support two separate administrations. Today the amalgamated diocese stretches from its most northerly tip at Moyvalley in the parish of Balyna to its most southerly point, St. Mullins, where the river Barrow becomes tidal, flowing out at Waterford Harbour. Apparently that’s just in case I need a quick escape!

The statistics of Kildare & Leighlin Diocese paint a picture that allows me to frame this morning’s subject matter – ‘Priests Promoting Priestly Vocations’. There are 56 parishes in the Diocese. The estimated population[1] is about 10,000 short on the Meath total but when the Ploughing Championships are on in Ratheniska, or the races at the Curragh or Naas, or when the Electric Picnic is taking place in Stradbally, the population of the Diocese then well exceeds Meath! Let’s return to the priestly profile of Kildare & Leighlin.

There are 95 priests in active ministry in the Diocese. Out of the 95 in active ministry, 15 are non-diocesan priests[2]. Of the 80 diocesan or K&L priests in active ministry, one is on loan to the Dublin Regional Marriage Tribunal; a second is on extended leave in the United States; a third is currently on sabbatical. There are two men full time in St. Patrick’s College, Carlow, a Diocesan Chancellor and a full time Vocations Director, appointed only recently. Of the remaining 73 ministering in what might be termed ‘Parish Responsibilities’, 17 are over 75, the seventeenth just celebrating his 75th birthday today. There is no priest in the Diocese today under 40. We have 21 fully retired priests and just one seminarian currently in formation, David Vard. David is now in his Second Divinity year, presently on pastoral placement in Graiguecullen Parish, on the outskirts of Carlow. From a hurried hearing of the priestly profile of the diocese, you can sense why this morning’s topic is very close to my heart.

I went to secondary school at St. Pat’s in Navan, a short distance in the road from here. It was the priests there who were most influential on my own vocation – the late Fr. Seamus Dunican on the early morning run around the infamous ‘All Weather Pitch’; the late Fr. Joe Dooley, who later became my Parish Priest out in Slane, in his English Class as he imparted to us a huge appreciation of rhythm and metre in poetry; and of course Fr. Gerry Rice and Fr. Michael Sheerin through their respective history and maths classes, but mostly through their example of being good priests.

You will already note this is not an academic paper as on previous seminars, but a more ‘hands on’ paper, reminding you all how important your example and witness of priesthood is to those around you. Pope Francis reminds us “behind and before every vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated life there is always the strong and intense prayer of someone: a grandmother, a grandfather, a mother, a father, a community … this is why Jesus said: ‘Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest,’ that is God the Father, ‘to send out laborers into his harvest’[3]. Vocations are born in prayer and from prayer; and only through prayer can they persevere and bear fruit.[4]” In recent months I started a programme around the renewal and revival of Eucharistic Adoration in our Diocese; to have appointed a full-time Vocations Director without an army of prayer behind his work would have been a futile and hollow exercise.

The most important group who can promote vocations, I firmly believe are you the priests. Your priesthood, your example, your witness, your presence in the market place and your quiet time in the Church or Adoration Room are a huge influence on a young man who is exploring the possibility of a vocation. But you must do much, much more. But it is not easy. As Priests, working in collaboration with our lay people we are still continuing to cope with the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals that have swept the western world and impacted hugely here in Ireland. These scandals have done immense damage to many people, particularly young people – our credibility has been seriously dented – we still have a journey to go. It is difficult to put our heads above the parapet and encourage or promote vocations, in such a despondent and at times hostile context. But I think we must, and I’ll make some suggestions how.

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis tells us “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that delightful and comforting joy of evangelising”[5]. Now I suggest is the time to witness to the joy we all share in our preaching of the gospel. This joy is not something flippant or trivial, but something rooted in the very nature of our priesthood. St. Paul suggests: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, Rejoice! …  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”[6]. Joy is our deep sense of contentment that grows out of our relationship with God. Happiness depends on things around us, joy doesn’t. Mgr. Joseph Murphy speaking on ‘The Priest, Man of Joy’ here in Lismullin three years ago referenced Pope Emeritus Benedict in an academic paper he delivered many years before becoming Pope, when the then Cardinal Ratzinger said “the root of man’s joy is the harmony he enjoys with himself”[7].

 

Harmony is a great word for us to reflect on; harmony covers every aspect of our priesthood. If we are comfortable in our skin, others will note our comfort and learn from it. Comfortable is not being smug or self-righteous, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The writer and mystic Catherine de Hueck Doherty, whose cause for canonisation was opened by St. John Paul II in 2000, wrote about the reverence she has for the priesthood: “We call you ‘Father’ because you begot us in the mystery of a tremendous love affair between you and God. Because you participate in the one priesthood of Christ, you are wedded to the Church, his Bride … we call you ‘Father’ and we are your ‘family’. We need you desperately to serve us, to feed us with the Eucharist, to heal us with anointing, to reconcile us to God …”. Harmony begins in our comfortableness around who we are and what we’re about. What influence that has on others we may never know.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the most coherent and incisive thinkers in the American Church posed a great question centering on Mother Teresa in a series of talks he delivered to priests in Melbourne seven years ago: “How many of you know the name of Mother Teresa’s Parish Priest when she was a child? What’s my point? Mother Teresa didn’t become Mother Teresa by herself. She had someone who preached the Word of God to her … Did he know he was helping to form the soul of one of our age’s great witnesses to Christ? He couldn’t have. But it wouldn’t have made any difference. His mission would have been the same. He was doing what he was supposed to do. What God called him to do”[8]. Did I know Br. Oisín, as he is now called, was attending daily Mass quietly in the right side aisle of St. Mary’s Church on James Street in Drogheda for a number of years? I didn’t, but he was and he now is a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal in the Blessed Sacrament Friary at Newark in New Jersey, miles from his life ten years ago as a Civil Servant working in the Donore Industrial Estate on the outskirts of the town. 

We priests have a special responsibility to promote vocations. While every diocese is obliged to have a Diocesan Director, the very clear brief I gave our recently appointed one, was to resource and support the priests in their work as Vocations Directors. Fr. Stephen Langridge, a priest of the diocese of Southwark in England and Chairman of the England and Wales Vocations Directors Conference at a recent gathering at Maynooth said “the best people to promote vocations in parishes are priests themselves but that sometimes there is a lack of confidence. As a Church we need to help priests to recover their confidence in themselves and in their priestly ministry”[9]. The work of encouraging vocations mustn’t be left at the door of the Vocations Director in the Diocese; his job, his task, his role is to resource his colleagues, to strengthen their confidence to speak about the priesthood and to ensure materials and manuals are professionally produced. The Dioceses have invested hugely and rightly so on safeguarding; we must now invest in the promotion of vocations. I don’t have enough priests to pull one of the younger ones out of active parish ministry and assign him to co-ordinating full time the Vocations Ministry, but I think it’s important enough to do just that.

In St. Patrick’s College Maynooth there are currently 69 seminarians studying for the priesthood. In 2013 the first year seminarian intake didn’t include one seminarian west of the River Shannon. In the first year group who entered three months ago there wasn’t one seminarian from all of Munster; while Kerry had one student, his roots were Belfast. Where are students coming from? The focus has firmly shifted from a parish-rooted involvement to a pilgrimage-rooted experience. A guy enquiring today about the priesthood mightn’t be even sure what parish he comes from, not to mention what Diocese he might study for. ‘Youth 2000’, ‘Pure in Heart’ are much bigger seminarian pullers than the traditional Diocesan School. While Fr. Terence McGovern, a past pupil of Knockbeg was ordained for Kildare & Leighlin in June 2013, the last priest ordained for the diocese, entering the seminary directly from his leaving cert in Knockbeg was Fr. Seán Maher, ordained in 1997. That’s 17 years ago. Admittedly there is a Knockbeg past pupil currently studying for the Archdiocese of Dublin out in Rome, Bill Shaughnessy, a native of Castledermot in County Kildare, so there is hope.

There seems to me to have been a determination among formators and maybe vocation directors in recent years that seminarians shouldn’t be accepted straight from their Leaving Cert. ‘They should experience the world’, what exactly does this entail? Does it suggest that the bulk of us who entered in our time are less priests for not having this experience? I don’t think so! While there may be exceptions to the current intake strategy, they are few in number. I believe priests must get back into our secondary schools, and our third level colleges, or wherever young people gather and encourage vocations. When did you last ask a young person to consider the priesthood? I do it regularly. The last time for me was last Friday evening, November 7th while presenting awards at another of our Diocesan Schools, St. Paul’s in Monasterevin. Among the awards were past pupil prizes. I presented a young man Stephen who is studying first year engineering in UCD with two trophies for his results last August, I think in Physics and Construction. As the photographs were being taken, the local priest told me, ‘Bishop Denis, Stephen is made of great stuff, he has the makings of a priest’. I asked Stephen how his course was going and had he ever considered the priesthood. He said his mother has asked him that before. I suggested his mother was a woman well worth listening to! I think today of Fr. Michael Balfe, my uncle, a Columban priest based at Dalgan Park up the road and the many Columbans who tell me today if it wasn’t for Fr. Michael Balfe, they would never have joined the Columbans.

May the same be said one day of any of us gathered this morning here in Lismullin … ‘if it wasn’t for Fr. so and so, I would never have joined the Diocese, the Prelature, the Order …’. Priests need to reclaim their voice again in the encouragement of vocations. This is done by stirring in our hearts the gifts we all have received with the imposition of hands on our Ordination Day. While we all may be vessels of clay, broken and bruised often, we must regain the strength, the appetite and the hunger for a renewed vocations drive. I smile when I read in the Irish Catholic that vocations are back on the agenda of the Bishops Conference, they should never have been off that agenda. Just as the school Board of Management must always have the issue of safeguarding on its agenda, so too vocations needs to be a topic at every gathering and assembly of priests and bishops.

This morning’s discussion topic ‘Priests Promoting Priestly Vocations’ carries within its frame self made restrictions. It omits the huge contribution lay people make to the encouragement of vocations. In Kildare & Leighlin our Vocations Director is about to train 20 young lay people who will be equipped to tell their vocation story and implant in that story the central role of the priest on their lives.  Alongside priests promoting vocations to the priesthood is the essential presence of good men and women, especially parents, who believe firmly in the critical role which priests play in parish life. I mentioned earlier the profile of the diocese from a personnel perspective;once again the title of the talk didn’t allow me to flag the huge numbers of religious and laity who are the backbone of so many of our 56 parishes. Sometimes it is said around lay involvement that lay people are not just an optional extra, called in when there is a scarcity of vocations but an essential component in parish life. This is absolutely true, but equally the reverse has validity, a parish wouldn’t be a parish without its ordained priests.

Priestly vocations are everyone’s business, but you the Priests are a central cog in that drive. A diocese must be willing to release the priests most gifted in the area of formation and discernment for work in our seminaries. Priests who are comfortable but not smug in their priesthood; priests who are articulate and do present a good example of priestly commitment; priests who radiate a sense of joy in their preaching and their living of the gospel message. I think we need to restructure our formation model, staffing a seminary with priests who remain rooted in parish life and pastoral practice, while still possessing the key qualities necessary to form and educate seminarians. In 2014 while we may realize most vocations won’t come immediately out of a secondary school environment, we need urgently to plant the seeds to nourish a culture of discernment, where young people are encouraged to think seriously about their life. If we as priests don’t encourage this culture of discernment the young men who want to become priests and have that calling in their DNA will slip through the cracks. I conclude with a line I used in my address in Carlow on the day when I was ordained Bishop: “the best examples of priesthood are joyful priests who love their faith and who love the Church”[10]. May we all be those joyful priests who believe that “priesthood is a call, not a career, a way of life, not a job, an identity, not just a role”[11] and in that belief, may we take up our rightful place as vocation promoters seeking out the vocations which are out there waiting to be invited, waiting to be encouraged and waiting to be challenged. Many thanks.

[1]260,000 as of the figures for 2013.

[2]15 are made up as follows: 6 are Kiltegan: 3 are Polish; 2 are Indian; 1 Salesian; 1 Dominican; 1 Slovakian & 1 Mill Hill Priest.

[3]Mt.9:38

[4]Pope Francis, Regina Coeli, 21 April 2013.

[5]EG ¶10

[6]Phil. 4:4,7

[7]Ratzinger, J.: ‘Faith as Trust and Joy – Evangelium’, in Principles of Catholic Thelogy, San Francisco, 1987, pg. 79 as referenced in Mgr. Joseph Murphy’s paper ‘The Priest, Man of Joy’, Lismullin Priests’ Seminar, 9 November 2011 pg. 3.

[8]Chaput, Charles: ‘Claiming our Vocation as Priests of Jesus Christ’, presentation to the National Conference of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, Melbourne – 4-5 July, 2007.

[9]Speaking at the Diocesan Vocations Directors Conference in Maynooth: 26-27 October, 2014.

[10]Ordination Address at Carlow: 4 August 2013

[11]ibid