The Irish Bishop’s conference has initiated a year of prayer for vocations to the diocesan priesthood. Prayer and priesthood are closely connected. Priesthood ultimately is about service fuelled from God’s Amazing Grace. A service that connects often in vulnerable moments of life, offering hope, comfort and consolation that God continues to be close to us. We live in dramatic times. The secularization of Irish culture has been both dramatic and swift. In a culture which prides itself on choice and freedom of the individual faith and faith practice has dramatically reduced. It is no longer possible to equivocate our community with parish. For the majority have made their choice not to engage in the faith life of local parish. Praying for vocations in such challenging environment is indeed a mighty act of faith. However, though our future as church will be dramatically different we must not be overburdened by anxiety of its eventuality.
Recently in Athlone and Clonmel, the Franciscan Friars after 788 years of faithful service to the people, have left their friary. They survived dungeon, fire and sword but not the vocations crisis. This reality is now felt in almost every parish on our island. The old structures and services supplied by clergy are no longer viable, simply because our model of church, as we know it, is dying rapidly. This is not a personal negativity, but rather a pragmatic observation by one who serves three parishes, trying to maintain similar services where 20 years previous, seven priests shared this responsibility.
Somehow, we are failing even in our maintenance to safeguard the health and well-being of tired, elderly, worn out clergy. The average age of clergy in Ireland is now well past 66, an age that’s deemed vulnerable by H.S.E. and where in all walks of life retirement takes place. There are 26 Dioceses on our island, all facing similar realities and yet failing to offer a cohesive, All Island, response to this vocation crisis.
For as long as I can remember prayers have been said by the faithful for an increase in vocations to priesthood and religious life. These prayers, are heartfelt by the faithful and have been ongoing for decades. I ask, have these prayers not been heard, or perhaps have we as church, failed to listen to the spirit speaking to us. One thing is for sure, we are living in a time of rapid change. Most of us saw this transition happening well over 20 years ago but the institution failed to implement new structures to embrace a new reality.
Whilst we maintain the same old structures, we have fundamentally failed to embrace new possibilities. Our dying continues to accelerate and our relevance to contemporary culture is at best insignificant. The horrendous sexual abuse scandals have left a deep wound in the heart of the Irish Church. The credibility and moral authority of our institution’s hierarchy is seriously undermined and has no doubt been part of the reason why we now live with this vocation crisis.
Vocation to the priesthood and religious life is a deeply personal and fulfilling journey. Despite the many challenges, it’s a deep privilege to serve people often at their most vulnerable reminding them we are not alone, God is very close to us. Priestly ministry, is a very sacred one, fuelled by a rich grace that comes from the Lord. The more I turn to the Lord, the greater I feel his presence in my life. Scripture reminds us “When I am weak then I am strong”.
Christ the Good Shepherd, continues to be a deeply attractive and inspirational role model regarding priesthood and vocation, we as Christians are all called to share in his kindness and compassion, especially to those who carry deep wounds and bruises in life. Jesus lived comfortably on the periphery, his teaching and witness challenged those in authority, his radical love embraced the outsider and offered empathy and friendship to those who struggled most. In a culture that carries deep bruises where many seek meaning and purpose in life, we are all called to witness Christ’s love to those we encounter in our daily lives.
Vocation to ministry must reflect our culture. The Spirit is speaking loudly to embrace the signs of our times. Embrace the wonderful women in all our Christian communities’ welcome men and women committed in love to their families and community to ministry in their local parish. Every crisis brings opportunity. May we be creative, courageous and pragmatic as we listen to God’s invitation to follow him in year of prayer for vocations.
LORD of the Harvest, BLESS young people with the gift of courage to respond to your call. Open their hearts to great ideas, to great things. INSPIRE all of your disciples to mutual love and giving – for vocations blossom in the good soil of faithful people. INSTILL those in religious life, parish ministries, and families with the confidence and grace to invite others to embrace the bold and noble path of a life consecrated to you. UNITE us to Jesus through prayer and sacrament, so that we may cooperate with you in building your reign of mercy and truth, of justice and peace. Amen. Pope Francis – Adapted from the Message on the 51st World Day of Prayer for Vocations.