Since last April the Catholic Church in Ireland is in a year of prayer for and promotion of vocations to the diocesan priesthood. The theme chosen is ‘Take the risk for Christ’. It is an appropriate theme, and it is timely to pray about, think about, encourage and to explore the experience of vocation to diocesan priesthood in contemporary Ireland.
Nowadays we are more familiar with ordination jubilees: silver, ruby, golden and diamond, than with the ordination of new priests. Local celebrations of priests who have answered God’s call over all those decades are usually well marked and celebrated, as we had here in this parish of Westport a few weeks ago. Rightly so, because these events provide a parish community with an opportunity to highlight and appreciate the valued work of their priests. In highlighting the answering of God’s call all those years ago by jubilarians, we encounter the stark fact that new priests are few and will continue to be even fewer, for the foreseeable future. Although, I hesitate to say that, because you never know what the Holy Spirit will do, and I am confident the year of prayer for vocations to the diocesan priesthood will not go unheard or unanswered by the Lord.
Having said all that, it is my experience that young men are searching for meaning, exploring possibilities and thinking deeply about what paths they will take in life. I like to think of three outlooks, or fertile soils, to continue the metaphor of the gospels of these weeks, I consider important for exploring vocation.
The first is a sense of wonder about the world and about creation. What better place to let that sense of wonder grow than here in the West of Ireland and in particular at Croagh Patrick and its environs on this Reek Sunday weekend. The majesty and the mystery of the mountain is alluring. The Bible recounts powerful encounters with God on holy mountains such as when Moses received Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and Jesus’ disciples witnessing the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The beauty of the birds-eye view of Clew Bay and its islands, on a clear day, is breath-taking. We can certainly be moved by that beauty in God’s creation, and we can more easily appreciate the urgent need to care for the environment and the earth – our common home. The Holy Spirit’s gift of wonder and awe in God’s presence comes to mind. That sense of wonder about creation of life, of human beings and of all that exists, is mind boggling but can also be the beginnings of an appreciation of what we are, what we have, and what we are called to be – all coming from God. That sense of wonder and awe about God is an important starting point for any Christian vocation, and most certainly for a priestly vocation.
The second element in a vocation story is belief in God and in his incarnate and resurrected Son, Jesus Christ. A curiosity about him, his life, his message, his experiences, his contact with others and his divinity goes hand-in-hand with a vocation to priesthood. It can divert here into the realms of theology and the link between God and humanity. But the most important link is the personal one between each one of us and God, through Jesus, the way to the Father. That is the key that holds it all together: how I relate to God and how he relates to me, loving me, encouraging me and reassuring me.
The third element, often arising from that sense of wonder and from that personal relationship, be it near or distant, clear or vague, is the Lord’s personal call so often heard in the Gospels to “come follow me.” It is, all at once, a call to come to know him personally, to experience the power of his message, and a call to go out as a priest in the modern world to spread the Good News of Jesus. That call can come in several ways: a niggling feeling that I must do something else with my life, a recurring desire to follow Jesus in ministry, a deep sense of mission and purpose, inspired by Jesus and so many of his followers down through the ages – not least among them St. Patrick in whose memory we make the Reek Pilgrimage, and whose successor, the Archbishop of Armagh, I am honoured to welcome among us as a pilgrim this year.
Priesthood today has a purpose. The village of Mullagh in Cavan was the birthplace of Saint Killian, greatly honoured in Bavaria in southern Germany. There, in the Church grounds, is a statue of the saint, staff in hand, one foot in front of the other, his cloak beginning to fill out behind him. The sculptor captures a sense of purpose, he is on his way, a man on a mission. Like so many before and since, he answered the call. He has a mission, that mission is to save and teach for Christ.
Answering the call to diocesan priesthood also has risks, as reflected in the theme ‘Take the risk for Christ’. That risk exists in all those elements of vocation, of answering a call, of having a personal faith in God, of having a mission; there are risks. The risk of so publicly committing to faith in Jesus at this time in Ireland risks ridicule and some seeing such an option as a waste. Sacrificing, the possibility of intimacy and marriage and family brings with it a risk of doubt in oneself. Then, there is the ongoing consciousness that the Church failed to protect children. Those are some of the risks that young people and priests face in considering a vocation to priesthood and continuing in the priesthood.
There are positive factors too, of course. There is the live-giving, energising, and truly immeasurable value of serving the Lord and his people. If you want to see that in action, take a look at your priest: is he happy, is he hopeful, is helpful, and above all is he a herald of the Good News of Jesus Christ? The risk is taken because of the value placed on the message, the Good News of Jesus Christ, his love for us and his invitation to be with him for eternity. This is the treasure of great worth. Many people are searching, wondering about and exploring what brings meaning to life. During this Year of Vocation, you may have the opportunity to explore, encourage and enlighten some young men to consider diocesan priesthood. Take that risk to encourage vocation. “Take the risk for Christ.”
- Archbishop Francis Duffy is Archbishop of Tuam.