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“In your priestly ministry be merciful, be understanding and always be aware that families often struggle, as we do, to live up to their vocation” Archbishop Eamon Martin

Homily for the Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev Colm Hagan and Rev Stephen Wilson

Dear brothers and sisters, I have just returned from the World Meeting of Families in Rome where families from across the world gathered with Pope Francis to reflect eon the fundamental importance of family in the life of Church and society.  You will recall that the last World Meeting took place in Dublin in 2018.  The emphasis this year was on the “vocation” of the family. We tend to use the word “vocation” when referring to the call to priesthood or to the consecrated life, and of course we recognise also the vocation to marriage, but the focus of this World Meeting was on the “vocation” of family love as a path to holiness.

I mention this today, Colm and Stephen, because it is important for us to see the vocation to priesthood as one of service, and especially of service to the family.  The Decree, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council, spoke about priesthood.  It drew attention to the distinctiveness of the ministerial priesthood, but it also richly reminded us of the common priesthood of all the baptised, and emphasised that the ministerial priesthood serves the common priesthood of the faithful.

I invite you then, on this day of your ordination, to commit to a life of priestly service to the family.  I was ordained to the priesthood in Derry on this same Sunday, 35 years ago.  Even in that relatively short time there has been a sea change in the culture and context in which we exercise our ministry as priests.  Two weeks ago in Athlone, the Pre-Synodal gathering of the Church in Ireland identified the challenges and the opportunities for the Church at this time and in the coming years.  It has been clear during the Synodal journey to date, that despite the negativity that often accompanies discussion about the Catholic Church in Ireland, there remains a significant body of lay women and men who are deeply committed to their faith and passionate about the future of their Church.  And, I also have a strong sense that any lasting renewal of faith in Ireland can only come about via a renewal of our commitment to the “domestic church” that is the family.

It is important for us priests to realise that we do not have a monopoly on the “charisms” for building up the Church, including in leadership and decision making.  Far from it.  The Holy Spirit is already inspiring many lay women and men in Ireland, who are being called and gifted for the service of the Gospel in this time and in this place.  The catechism is clear in that in the Church there is “diversity of ministry but unity of mission” and that the lay faithful “share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 873).”

Part of our role as priests is to call forth these charisms and enable our lay brothers and sisters to fully exercise their baptismal calling and role.  We should be careful not to block the Holy Spirit’s work by stifling the Spirit’s call to our lay faithful, or by selfishly holding on to some outmoded sense of priestly power or control.

Colm and Stephen, the centrality of family and life is consistently upheld in the teaching of the Church, and alongside this, real families need our priestly respect, support and pastoral accompaniment – that was mentioned many times in the testimonies of families in Rome during this past few days. But equally importantly it was emphasised that the vocation to priesthood and the vocation of marriage and family are complementary – we need each other. I urge you therefore to make time for ministry to the family, and for the distinctive ministry of the family and within the family. This is not about passively waiting for families to come to you, but it is an essential ingredient of priestly mission and service to reach out to families, to meet, to visit homes, to encourage, pray with, support and guide families as they play their rightful and vital part in the mission of the Church.

Of course you will not find “perfect” families without their struggles and upsets, but you will find many examples of families who are living the reality of the domestic Church, the “little church” – as cradles of prayer, of faith hope, and charity; schools of love, forgiveness and compassion; and, seedbeds of vocation where each member is finding her or his own personal encounter with Jesus and path to discipleship and holiness.  Yesterday evening at the concluding Mass in Rome, Pope Francis said to parents, “if you help your children to discover and to accept their vocation, you will see that they too will be ‘gripped’ by this mission; and they will find the strength they need to confront and overcome the difficulties of life.”

Colm and Stephen, I encourage you to nourish families by sharing joyfully with them the Word of God.  To do this successfully we priests need to meditate on the Word of God every day of our priestly life – to believe what we read there, to faithfully teach what we believe, and, of course, to practice what we teach.  People will look to you for the encouragement, challenge and consolation that the Gospel brings, but they will also want you to be priests who are authentic, faithful to your priestly promises, sincere and grounded.

Bring also to families the nourishment of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life.  When you celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments, understand what you are doing and imitate what you celebrate.  As celebrants of the mystery of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection, this means always striving to put to death whatever in you is sinful, and to walk in newness of life.

Colm and Stephen, please do not forget to offer support to grandparents – for they hold and share the wisdom of years spent living the faith in the grounded reality of family with all its joys and struggles.  Be humble in your priesthood, recognising that we priests can learn far more from families about lived Christianity than we can ever hope to bring!

Remember, when you gather others into the People of God through Baptism, and when you forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance; when you comfort the sick with holy oil and celebrate the sacred rites, when you offer prayers of praise and thanks to God throughout the hours of the day, not only for the People of God but for the whole world – remember then that you grew up as part of a family yourself, with all its ups and downs, its joys and its struggles.  You were called and appointed from among the family of families that is the People of God to give your life to God. Your vocation to holiness and your pathway to ordination was inspired, nurtured, and shaped by your personal experience of home and family.

Pope Francis often says that “no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed”, so in your priestly ministry be merciful, be understanding and always be aware that families often struggle, as we do, to live up to their vocation and stay on the right path to holiness.

That is why we must always strive as priests to bring the people of God together into one family and to carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love and mercy.  We ought not to be selfish in attending to our own concerns, instead keep in mind that we are ministers of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to seek out and save those who are lost or going astray.

ENDS                                                

  • Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland.  Archbishop Martin delivered this homily on 26 June 2022 in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, during mass for the ordination to the Priesthood of  Father Colm Hagan and Stephen Wilson 

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