Address to Vocations Conference, Maynooth, 2016.
I begin by extending a very warm welcome to Archbishop Jorge Carlos Wong, Secretary for Seminaries, and I thank him for joining us at our Conference this year.
Secondly I welcome and thank the Vocations Directors, Diocesan and Religious attending. Fostering vocations in Ireland today is a difficult business and I thank you for making yourselves available to do it.
I also welcome representatives of the lay faithful who are working in vocations promotion and I would like to acknowledge the presence of Archbishop Eamon Martin and a number of other Bishops who are attending the opening of the Conference.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Irish church at the moment is the shortage of candidates coming forward to priesthood and religious life. In recent years the vocations landscape in Ireland has changed dramatically.
In 1965 441 priests were ordained in Ireland, at the present time it is usually 12/13 annually.
This sharp decline in numbers studying for the priesthood obviously has huge implications for the future shape of ministry. It also impacts on the present by undermining and sapping our morale.
The effect of this should not be underestimated. I know farmers and business people, who when they realise that none of the family are interested in continuing on the farm or in the business, sell up.
They lose heart, they see no point in continuing when it becomes obvious that nobody is going to carry on the business. This realisation can take its toll in priesthood and religious life too.
We keep reading articles entitled ‘’ The Last Priests in Ireland ‘’ and ‘’ Priests under Pressure.’’ We see communities that always had a resident priest now being served from a distance by hard-pressed, hard-working priests, who are often getting on in years.
Much has been written and said about why priesthood and religious life have lost their attraction, about why they are not on the agenda for young people today, or indeed for their families.
Priesthood and religious life need a context, a context of faith and practice, a context where they are understood, appreciated and supported.
Tony Blair in his autobiography talks a lot about the weather. He doesn’t mean the forecast we get after the 9.00 News, he means the political weather, the mood of the time, the trends and agendas at work at any given moment.
He discovered as Prime Minister that the ‘’ weather ‘’ as he called it could help or hinder a policy he was trying to promote. If the weather was favourable a policy would stand a much better chance of being accepted than if the weather was adverse.
We must acknowledge that we are subject to the same forces, that we do not fly above the weather and that for all kinds of reasons faith does not occupy the same space it once did in our country.
It’s a cliché now to talk about how Ireland has changed in recent years. It should not surprise us that this change, and its pace, should impact on us in the church. It should not surprise us that life in the church does not go on as it did before.
The scandals have had an impact too, they have poisoned the well, but this cultural shift had begun before the scandals broke. They didn’t cause it but they certainly didn’t help, especially in the negative way they allowed priesthood and religious life to be portrayed.
The cumulative effect of all this is that many church people are unsure about the future. In the face of this uncertainty we need to remember that we are not the first generation of Christians to be anxious about the future, to wonder what will happen to us, to the faith we cherish, and what we are called to do by God in the midst of our uncertainty.
The walkers on the road to Emmaus were anxious about the future too. All their talk was of the past ‘’ we had hoped……’’ They didn’t think they had a future, they thought it was all over.
And then as Luke says their eyes were opened……and they understood what the stranger had been saying to them on the road. In this broken world faith has to be sacrificial, faith has to struggle, faith has to suffer, and faith has to believe in the future.
Archbishop Oscar Romero who was murdered while saying Mass in El Salvador in 1980 has a powerful, thought provoking phrase which I believe is apt for us this evening, he said ‘’ we are prophets of a future that is not our own.’’
This phrase I believe speaks to us where we are today. We do not own the future in the way we once did, in fact we often have trouble keeping up with the present!
Back in the heady days of full seminaries and novitiates it would have been tempting to think that we did own the future and that we could bend it to our will. I believe Oscar Romero is saying to us ‘’ it’s alright not to own the future, we can still bear witness to it even though we cannot shape it like we once did.
A spiritual writer has written ‘’ the contemporary situation arouses our hopes while it nourishes our fears……….we are where Christians should be, poised on the razor’s edge between present and future, aware of the possibilities for good or evil which open up in front of us.’’
In the Year of Consecrated Life the Holy Father asked us to do three things;
- To look to the past with gratitude.
- To live in the present with enthusiasm.
- To embrace the future with hope.
I believe that this way of looking at life applies to what we are about as well, looking at priesthood and religious life, past present and future.
Looking to the past should not be in the words of the Holy Father ‘’ an exercise in archaeology ‘’ but an opportunity ‘’ to give thanks for a journey which for all its light and shadow, has been a time of grace, marked by the presence of the Spirit.’’
In the words of the Psalmist ‘’ our sins are always before us.’’ This sometimes annoys us but it may be a blessing in disguise because we must never forget what happened. Neither should we forget the goodness, decency and dedication of so many priests, sisters and brothers.
Speaking about living in the present with enthusiasm Pope Francis says ‘’ where there are religious there is joy ‘’ and ‘’ none of us should be dour, discontented or dissatisfied, for a gloomy disciple is a disciple of gloom.’’
Thirdly, he asks us to embrace the future with hope, whatever that future may hold or mean. This hope is more than the vague feeling that all our endeavours will have a happy ending, it is the conviction that whatever happens the Kingdom of God will continue to be proclaimed and revealed.
In Ch. 43—v18/19 Isaiah says ‘’ do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago…..watch for the new thing…..’’ As Easter people this should be our default position, we work, hope and pray for a new outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
Speaking of new things, over the past year the Council for Vocations have been exploring the possibility of setting up a National Office for Vocations based here in Maynooth.
Its mission would be to;
- Build a culture of vocation in the church in Ireland, a culture where vocations to the priesthood are talked about, prayed for, and encouraged.
- Promote the call to Diocesan priesthood.
- Co-ordinate and animate Diocesan initiatives.
It is envisaged that the proposed office would work in cooperation with Vocations Ireland. At its Summer Meeting the Episcopal Conference agreed in principle to the proposal, subject to its nature and function being discerned with Vocational Directors.
In Verbo Tuo challenges us all to contribute to a culture of vocation where it says ‘’ the vocational crisis of those called is also a crisis, today, of those calling. If no one calls, how can anyone respond?’’
It has been well said that fostering vocations is the task of some and the responsibility of all. May God bless our deliberations and our decisions in this Conference.
+ Denis Brennan.