09 March 2023, The Tablet

'Take the risk for Christ' – Irish bishops launch year for vocations

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan said the synodal process had shown “the love” that people have for their local priest.

'Take the risk for Christ' – Irish bishops launch year for vocations

The Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Alphonsus Cullinan, with senior seminarians in the chapel of Maynooth College.
John McElroy

The Irish bishops have launched a new drive for vocations which aims to start conversations on “the beauty of the vocation of priesthood” within families, parish communities as well as among priests. 

Speaking to The Tablet at the national seminary in Maynooth, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan, chair of the bishops’ council for vocations explained, “Everyone has a vocation, but this year is specifically about prayer for vocations to the diocesan priesthood.”

The theme for the Year of Vocations is “Take the Risk for Christ”.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Bishop Cullinan said: “From speaking to newly-ordained priests, there is a strong correlation between their calling and the influence and encouragement received from a priest who had previously spoken to them about their ministry, about taking the risk for Christ.” 

He appealed to any men considering priesthood to “be generous and trust”.

“If this is what God wants for you, then this is how you will find fulfilment, not only in this life but in the next,” he said.

A special conference entitled “Evangelisation and Vocation” will take place next month at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth to open the Year of Vocations, which runs until April 2024.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, pro-prefect of the Vatican dicastery for evangelisation, will give the keynote address on “Diocesan Priesthood in a Synodal Church”.

Bishop Cullinan, who is Bishop of the Diocese of Waterford & Lismore, said one of the reasons the council for vocations decided to launch the initiative was because 30 April this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the International Year for Prayer for Vocations.

While that was “the spur” and the “springboard” for an idea they have been working on for several months, he explained that the primary reason was “the need” for vocations to the priesthood.

“There are parishes up and down the country now needing more priests,” he said.

He added that feedback to the synodal synthesis from the conversations that took place around the country had shown “the love” that people have for their local priest.

“People do actually really value the priest, despite all the things that are going on.”

Recalling the tragedy last October in Creeslough, Co Donegal, when ten people were killed in a deadly explosion at a petrol station, he paid tribute to the role of local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy in the aftermath.

“The whole country, I think, really saw there the essential work of the priest in gathering the community to pray, to mourn together, to be with each other and to help each other,” he said.

Bishop Cullinan was joined by three senior seminarians from Maynooth for the launch. He told The Tablet: “We are here to support these wonderful seminarians and I think there is an energy building up around this.”

Asked about the difficulty of promoting vocations in the wake of the negative fallout from abuse scandals, he responded, “That is the battle – this is our job. We believe in it and therefore we are going to promote it.”

Recalling a conversation he had with some of those who undertake street outreach to those who have fallen into drug addiction, he asked: “What are we going to do for the young people of Ireland? We must give them another way to live.

“We must put it to them that God exists and that Jesus is with us and there is always hope.”

Asked about the lack of vocations in Ireland today, he said: “I remember in Waterford years ago, the previous papal nuncio was asked that question and he said, ‘There will always be enough priests.’ The Lord will always provide.

“I look around the seminary here, these are great guys, and the Lord is providing them. I am praying that he is going to provide more.”

The National Vocations Office is responsible for managing the Year of Vocations. Over the twelve months events will be held in parishes and at pilgrim sites around the country, and resources will be provided for homes and schools.

One of the seminarians who attended the launch is final year student Anthony Hartnett, who will be ordained in Raphoe diocese next year.

The 27-year-old explained to The Tablet that under the new plan for the formation of priests, ordination to the diaconate and priesthood no longer takes place in Maynooth but in the diocese for which the seminarian is preparing to serve.

He explained that “it was the example of other priests that really led me to think seriously about the idea of a vocation to priesthood”.

One of eight children, he said that as a family, “we prayed, we went to Mass and faith was a very positive experience on the whole”.

“I began to grow in my faith in my late teens. It came to a point where I really felt, if God is calling people to be a priest maybe he might be calling me, and I have to be open to that.”

However, he will be embarking on priesthood at a time when the Irish Church is grappling with a declining number of priests.

Recognising that the number of seminarians is much smaller than in the past, Mr Hartnett said this ensured there was solidarity amongst the seminarians through their sense of common purpose and shared faith.

“We are in a time where the paradigm – the way we think about faith and the Church and Catholicism in Ireland – is changing.

“There might be more demands placed on priests now so you have to be open to whatever challenges come. Friendship, support and solidarity is really important.”

He added: “Fortunately we have had some really good formation on how to manage stress and have a better understanding of yourself so that you know when to draw the line. You have a better sense of your boundaries and your limitations.”

He said the possibility of burnout was “something to the fore of my mind” but thanks to his formation he knows he should not “try to be a hero” and that “people are there to support so it is not the priest doing everything”.

“We are a Church for the people of God. We have a common purpose and mission together: to help each other.”

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