Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast
I “I will sing forever of your love, O Lord, (Ps 88)
With the strains of the refrain from the Responsorial Psalm in our ears and hearts – “ I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord” – a love we shall follow and celebrate over the coming days of the sacred Triduum – I welcome you all to this Chrism Mass in St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast. As I welcome you
- from the parishes of the diocese and their numerous organisations and groups,
- the pupils and teachers from several schools,
- women and men from the numerous diocesan and parish offices,
- the directors and staff of our diocesan services (Family Ministry, Living Youth, all associated with the Growing in Faith Together (GIFT) initiatives), Safeguarding Services, the Lourdes pilgrimage teams
- Religious, members of monastic communities.
In your name I also welcome all guests who join us here or via the webcam and other linking technologies.
It is an immense joy this year to welcome the newly ordained Permanent Deacons, their wives and family members. At an initial review meeting just over a week ago, these nine men reported on the extent and variety of their ministerial outreach in our parishes and Pastoral Communities, in prisons, hospitals, at the service of persons entrapped in addictions. And they spoke of the universal and growing acceptance of their ministry both liturgical and in works of charity by all. May you, my brothers in Christ, and those presently in training for the permanent diaconate, continue to grow in your vocation.
With all of you assembled here this morning, in your name and in my own, I thank the priests and Religious of our diocese for their ministries and service in trying times and in betimes stressful context for their work, fidelity and dedication to those in their care. And I thank you my brothers in priestly ministry for your support, encouragement and friendship. And with you I extend our greetings to retired priests of our diocese in Nursing Homes, to priests in hospitals, and to those who unable to be with us through the weakness of age, illness, recuperation or due to the needs of their people.
We pray God’s abundant blessing on us here present and throughout our diocese, my dear people, as we enter the sacred Triduum together with Our Holy Father, Pope Francis and the Church universal throughout the world.
II “Grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first born from the dead” (Apoc 1.5)
Each year the liturgy of the Word for the Chrism Mass and the feast of the Priesthood nourish us with these readings from the prophet Isaiah, from the Apocalypse and from the gospel according to St Luke. With those familiar lines from Isaiah chapter 61, these extracts from the Word of God immerse the ministerial priesthood and indeed all ministries of service to the Christian community in the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth. Then the second reading from the Apocalypse of St John anchors all our ministries in the ultimate divine witness to self-sacrificing love and dedication. Those lines root all priestly service, ministerial, diaconal and other, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Taken together these readings remind us that we minister the life and hope of a new and eternal order.
As we know, the holy oils and the sacred Chrism, which are to be blessed, are used for sacramental anointing. They are the sacred elements and symbols of the continuing re-birthing of humanity in Christ to the gift of eternal life now in this world and in eternity.
In a sense, in the cycle of the Christian year, the Chrism Mass is the yearly relay station for saint and sinner at the Porta Coeli, at the gate of the celestial city.
For us your priests, this liturgy re-sources and renews our priestly ministry in the service of the network of the pastoral outreach of all the ministries exercised by so many in our parishes, pastoral communities and diocese and continue the mission of Jesus in time and generation.
Today we recall that this pastoral outreach has been invigorated over the past year by the worship, prayer, faith-building initiatives and works of charity carried on by our parishes animated by our priests, by the Religious communities and by the myriad societies and faith-based groups and initiatives that express the faith of our people.
As a faith community and Church we have also been enriched since last we gathered for this Chrism Mass by a range of significant faith-inspired initiatives such as :
- The publication on 9th April past of Pope Francis encyclical, Gaudete et Exultate, on the meaning of holiness
- The World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August last year
- and in our diocese, the ordination of nine men to the Permanent Diaconate on Sunday, 14th October past
- The Synod of Bishops on Faith, Youth and Vocational Discernment in October 2018
- And on foot of that Synod, the publication on 25 March past, the Feast of the Annunciation, of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit, to the Young People of the entire world
Through this sample of initiatives from the calendar of the life of the Church universal and local, we see the indivisible link between the call to holiness, the realities of family life and pastoral care and outreach to youth and future generations.
That care for the life of faith of future generations should also form a central part of the celebration of the Extraordinary Mission Month declared by Pope Francis for next October. It is designed to mark the centenary of the great Mission encyclical, Maximum illud and to focus our attention on the challenge of Christian mission and vocation for our present time in the local Church and in world society.
III Mission in our time, culture and local Church : Pastoral Letter and Novena for Vocations
In line with all these initiatives, we greet therefore today the initiative of the Vocations Working Group of our diocese to promote vocations to the priesthood. Their initiative implements and follows through on these events in the life of the Church over the past year. With faith, prayer and work they have followed a path that has led to the production of the Pastoral Letter on vocations and a call to a diocese-wide novena in parish, family and school, beginning on May 2nd and ending on Good Shepherd Sunday. We will each receive a copy of the Pastoral Letter, To follow Jesus closely, as we leave the cathedral today. I encourage you to read it at home and to discuss it around the family table.
This Pastoral Letter and the novena focus on the discernment of vocations and particularly on the promotion of vocations to the diocesan priesthood. It is most encouraging to know that some Pastoral Communities in the diocese have already lined up a rich programme of prayer, talks and reflection for the Novena.
Our diocese needs priests. Currently we have three students for the priesthood in seminary and our Vocations Director is accompanying a group of interested potential candidates.
We have all heard of the declining number of priests and the steeply declining graph for the coming years. We know that by 2023 at least fourteen currently serving priests in the eighty seven parishes of our diocese will have reached retirement age. They will not be replaced. By then and within five to ten years one priest will have charge of a group of parishes, the faithful and the Churches within those parishes.
Evidently, we shall see significant change in the coming decade. For example, funeral services and burials will be led by women and men, by fellow parishioners, with monthly Requiem Mass for those who have died during the previous weeks. as is the case already in other countries. Permanent Deacons, already celebrating the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony as well as exercising their ministry in a wide range of good works on the peripheries of life and society, will, we pray, be joined by others who discern a vocation to serve our local Church in the diaconate. New patterns and forms of collaborative ministry, of pastoral care and of worship will emerge at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Models are already present and at work in numerous organisations such as, St Vincent de Paul, the Legion of Mary.
Numbers and a calculus for replacement of priests, important though they are, are not the whole story, however. Indeed, such lines of thinking are not the emergent story! A sense of history and the tradition of the Church in Ireland reveals as much.
Each age and generation is called, as Pope Francis remarks in his Apostolic Exhortation to young people of the world, Christus Vivit, to “discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognise potential where others see only peril” (C.V 67).
It is for precisely this reason that our diocesan Living Church process and Pastoral Plan have put building stones and “pathways” for our parishes and pastoral communities of tomorrow : the Parish Pastoral Councils, Finance Councils, the Pastoral Community Forums, training programmes in Facilitative and Discerning Leadership skills, faith formation programmes in place. These are missionary steps. These are some of the means by which through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we pray and hope that new form is given to what Pope Francis describes as “an open and evangelising environment” (G.E. 145) and “a God enlightened space where the presence of the risen Lord is experienced” ( G.E. 142).
For all of us, whether our vocation has taken us on the way of Religious or Monastic life, Consecrated life, diocesan priest, parishioner married or single, engagement with these processes of evangelisation requires a spiritual courage. It demands betimes even a self-abandonment in order to tread in the footsteps of that puzzling Emmaus road rather than languor comfortably and self-defensively in what Pope Francis has described “the avid paralysis of the living dead, who have no life because they are afraid to take risks, to make mistakes or to persevere in their commitments” (C. V. 142).
And so, as a local Church, aware that our generation stands on the cusp of seismic change and transformation in the pastoral care and provision, in this Easter season of new life, hope and missionary mandate, we take up a vital challenge for the future of faith and mission.
As we prepare to bless the Holy Oils and the sacred Chrism for sacramental ministry, for grafting the new born, the living adult, the sick and the dying into the life of the Risen Christ, we undertake together as an entire diocese the task of praying for, encouraging and promoting vocations to the diocesan priesthood.
With this Pastoral Letter, To follow Jesus closely, and the Vocations Novena I ask each priest, deacon, each parent, the members of parish councils and pastoral community forums, our teachers and staff of our schools to become ambassadors for vocational discernment.
From time to time we meet a person whose lifestyle manifests signs of a priestly vocation. We should not fear to raise the subject with them. Encouragement and prayerful accompaniment is vital for the further discernment of a nascent vocation.
- Priestly Ministry – a life time’s adventure
As I invite all to read this Pastoral Letter, to take up in home, school and parish the novena for vocations in May, it goes without saying that vocation to Christ’s priesthood cannot be caught in any one model of priesthood. Whether as celebrant of the sacred mysteries, preacher, pastor, teacher, administrator, or prophetic champion of the oppressed, the priestly ministry is, like all ministries, a participation in the mystery of the living, crucified and risen Christ.
Priestly ministry is a fulfilling life. It is a life time’s adventure. It’s a life which also entails self-sacrifice for God and for others. It tries and trials each in different ways, like parents’ creative lives are tried and tested. In words from a poem, by the late William Philbin, one time bishop of this diocese and buried here in the Mortuary chapel, the priest is called “to make all world ways Emmaus roads”.
Now, as we set to renewing the promises of priestly ordination, let us all pray with and for all of us in holy orders – priests, bishops, permanent deacons – and also for all who through their work in our parishes extend and insert the ministry of Word, Sacrament and charity into the streets, laneways, gatherings, and homes of countless thousands throughout our diocese and its parishes.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will stir and move hearts and minds to respond to the call to serve as priests and religious and let us give thanks today for the ministry of all our priests living now and with the communion of the saints in the world to come.
 Be simple now and steadfast. You will move
In echoing places, stepping in others’ praise,
Measured on laid foundations. You must prove
Your lineage in the ancestry of love
Whose proving is in giving, being a phase
In an employment to make all world ways
Emmaus roads, all journeys end above.
Be steadfast now and footsure who employ
God with a word; be suppliant who must keep
Energies unmanmastered, spoils of no cheap
Huckstering, Godbloodpurchases; who deploy
And hazard vicarious victory, ravage or reap
Hereafter harvests, fulfil Christ or destroy.
- Bishop Noel Treanor is Bishop of Down and Connor.