Fourth Sunday of Easter – Vocations Sunday: 30.04.23
Sacred Heart Church, Borris @ 11am
Sixty years ago the very first ‘World Day of Prayer for Vocations’ was introduced by Saint Paul VI in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. We are now in the early stages of two Synods on Synodality. Pope Francis reminds us “synod should be a verb, not an adjective”. Too many saw it simply as a destination or end point, something that must got over with, for Pope Francis it’s something we must continue doing.
And it’s in the context of synodality that we are invited to reflect on diocesan vocations in this special ‘Year of Prayer for Vocations to the Diocesan Priesthood’, starting today. I have purposefully chosen the parish of Borris to launch this year in the diocese this morning. The statistics speak for themselves. Five men, serving today as Kildare & Leighlin diocesan priests, men who have roots in the soil of Borris, Ballymurphy and Rathanna – Tommy O’Shea, Phil O’Shea, Seán Kelly, Tom Little and Shem Furlong.
While our synodal conversations will see many new ministries and charisms identified and rightly acknowledged, we still need more vocations and it’s important to return to the soil that was tilled in the past. The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd in John’s gospel this morning, are we as attuned to that voice or are we too distracted elsewhere? Let us call to mind our sins …
In 1936 a novel was published in France by the French writer Georges Bernanos entitled ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’. It tells the story of a young priest who keeps a diary of his experiences and struggles in his first parish. It was in an isolated French village. The novel, divided into three parts, explores many themes including suffering, faith and humility. The young priest enjoys poor health but despite his weakness and the many gifts he feels he lacks, God’s grace shines through.
I always think the first appointment for a priest is probably his most important one. Mine was in Mullingar for ten years. Living then in a house with six priests, the house was a home as well as a presbytery. The kindness of the more senior men is something I will never forget. Gently they made suggestions, candidly they offered advice, making sure the newly ordained felt welcomed, supported and reassured. When there was a funeral to be celebrated, others offered their knowledge of the deceased, related to so and so, served on such and such committee, lived for a while in this or that particular estate. My memories are so positive, so wholesome. There was plenty to do, at times not enough hours in the day, but there was always an encouragement to find time to pray, to give God time, so that the time spent with His people would be all the more fruitful.
Then it was off to Drogheda for fifteen years. A parish on the edge of Meath diocese. Stories of Parish Priests in the past standing on the bridge stopping parishioners attending Mass in the religious orders or worse still a neighbouring diocese! Those days had well passed by the time of my arrival! St. Mary’s, Drogheda claimed territory in two counties, the wee county and the royal county! Being appointed as Parish Priest of a town parish was disconcerting for a young 36 year old then. Once again colleagues and neighbouring parishes were supportive. It took time to find my feet in the place. There was a school to be built, a graveyard to be tended to and a Church that had no car park. And that was only the first week! A much larger school would be built and opened a few months before my announcement as Bishop here in Kildare & Leighlin.
And that’s now ten years ago this year. Next Sunday, May 7th, ten years ago I was announced as Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin. A privilege but a daunting one to be sent to a part of the country I wasn’t familiar with, to a presbyterate I didn’t really know and into a role and a calling I was unsure of. But God’s grace was always there. Being a Bishop doesn’t carry with it a job spec or description. I continue to try to be that priest I was in Mullingar on my first appointment 35 years ago. The greatest gift of a priest, any priest and that includes a Bishop is to be present with people. To share their moments of joy and exhilaration and equally to be there when tragedy and sadness hits. A Bishop is asked also to be a teacher, a leader. Episcopus literally meaning “one who can see further”. We have been privileged over recent months as a presbyterate to take valuable time to reflect on the structure and shape of our diocese into the future. A diocese that will have less priests and much more lay collaboration and co-responsibility. Our reflections centred on the piece of scripture where Jesus invites the disciples to put out their nets for a catch. It was only after the conversation with the disciples that Jesus asks Peter to put out the nets once more. It was Peter who was asked. Someone must lead. Someone must give direction. Someone must make that call.
And that brings me here to Borris today. A parish as I said earlier that has been rich in vocations. While Borris lays claim to five vocations, Carlow Cathedral parish and Tullow account for six vocations each, while Rory’s Edenderry comes in closely after Borris with four vocations. There are six parishes with three vocations: Ballinakill, Ballon, Hacketstown, Kildare, Mountmellick and Stradbally. There are nine parishes with two vocations, many parishes with one vocation. There remains sixteen parishes who today have no one serving or retired in the diocese. Some of these parishes in the past were like Borris fruitful soil for vocations. The average age for diocesan priests in active ministry in our diocese is 69, well beyond the accepted retirement age in civil society. I acknowledge and deeply appreciate the more senior men who continue to hold parishes and are so loved by their people.
I absolutely accept today that the culture is not near as conducive or receptive as the past. There are less going to Sunday Mass, the pandemic has done a huge disservice to public worship and for some it has simply slipped off their radar. The decline in the interest of things spiritual accompanied by sickening reports and enquires where the abuse of the most precious was uncovered has rightly so angered many, including our very good priests, who probably today find it hard to promote a life they so deeply believe in. Religion is not at the centre of society, we have been relegated to the side-lines but the voice of Church is still important and must be heard today. We need priests.
In launching this Year for Vocation to the Diocesan Priesthood with its tag line ‘Take the Risk for Christ’, I am inviting young men and not so young if they feel this is the life God is calling them to, not to be frightened, but speak with their local priest or our Diocesan Vocations Director, Fr. Ruairí Ó’Domhnaill. If you are a parent or grandparent , a friend or a sibling and they confide in you, encourage them. If you know someone in your parish, hold them in your prayers and gently invite them to consider priesthood. With Archbishop Oscar Romero we pray that we may …
“plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capacities”