26 April 2023, The Tablet

Reboot priestly vocation for 'digital natives' says Archbishop

Reboot priestly vocation for 'digital natives' says Archbishop

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Pro-Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Evangelisation, in Ireland yesterday.
John McElroy

Priestly vocation must be rebooted to take into account the new cultures of digital natives, according to a senior prelate.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Pro-Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Evangelisation, delivering the keynote address at a conference on vocations at the national seminary in Maynooth yesterday, said the Church’s duty today in evangelisation is twofold.

On the one hand, there is the need to pass on that which has “always been believed by everyone everywhere” and on the other hand, there is “the need to understand the new emerging culture that will define the coming centuries: the digital culture”.

In his address, on priesthood in a synodal church, delivered to an audience of more than 100 that included many of the Irish bishops as well as Maynooth seminary staff, seminarians and priests, he said that the concept of vocation needs to be rethought for digital natives whose digital culture increasingly imposes itself by changing language and behaviours.

“The internet certainly represents an opportunity for dialogue, social exchange between people, as well as ease of access to knowledge and information. The real question we must ask ourselves in the face of this new culture, however, is not how to utilise the new technologies to evangelise, but rather how to become an evangelising presence in the digital continent.

“How, for example, can we be capable of decoding the innumerable data being received daily? And how can we support the search for truth in pursuit of a coherent answer to the question of the meaning of life?”

Archbishop Fisichella emphasised that there is an urgent need to know the power of the medium and to use all of its potential and positive aspects, while simultaneously realising that evangelisation isn’t only done using digital instruments. 

“Evangelisation is meant to offer spaces where there are experiences of faith, where an interpersonal encounter ends up being the winning card.” 

Otherwise, he said, “we will be confronted with a virtualisation of evangelisation that too closely resembles other virtual worlds, with the real risk of ending with a weak and ineffective evangelisation.”

Elsewhere in his address, the Italian prelate told delegates that their vocation is to mission. “Without the mission, there is no Church; we will always have to be very radical about this.”

He added that mission is an intrinsic element to Christianity, and at the same time, it becomes a judgement criterion for the effectiveness of pastoral work. 

“Without the push for missionary outreach, the Church loses strength and falls into the temptation to stand on its own and in its own structures, no longer possessing passion for the proclamation that makes her truly be the Body of Christ.”

He said that if all religions are the same, and if there isn’t really only one truth, given the great number of people in the world, what sense would it make to become missionaries of the Gospel? 

“If the newness and originality of the revelation of Jesus Christ is discarded, the very presence of the Church in the contemporary world becomes futile.” Evangelisation, he said, happens under the light of an encounter with Jesus Christ. 

Next week the Irish Church begins its year for vocation to the diocesan priesthood which has been given the theme “Take the Risk for Christ”.   

In his message to the initiative, Pope Francis encouraged the Irish Church “to propose priesthood to the men of this generation with faith and confidence”.

The vocations conference was attended by the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, who told The Tablet that the bishops were “very conscious of the need to encourage and inspire more young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood here in Ireland and beyond”.

He said he often tells his priests, “Don’t be afraid to tell young people your own personal story of vocation because it is that lived experience of vocation that inspires others”.  

However, he acknowledged that promoting vocations to the priesthood is a difficult task today in Ireland with so many “contrary messages”, but he added, “we do indeed have something very precious: we have a treasure – yes, in earthen vesses.” 

According to the Archbishop of Armagh, “priests are still loved in Ireland” and there are “priests who exude that joy and happiness of being called to serve God”. 

“That is really what we want to focus on; despite all of the awful stories, there are also wonderful stories of selfless service and that is what we want to spread and get out there. We want to spread the good news and to encourage people to respond to Christ’s call – follow me.”

The Rector of St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Fr Tomás Surlis told the conference that the work of preparing the priests of the future does not just fall to the seminary staff. 

 “Yes, of course there is a programme of formation that we have developed and that we are constantly looking at and trying to make it is the best it possibly can be. But there is a wider formative community of people who have had that encounter with the Lord.” This included parents, siblings and sometimes contemporaries in the digital culture that Archbishop Fisichella spoke about.  

He said he was struck by the image given by the Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelisation of the language used in the digital culture: “a language of immediacy and perhaps pre reflective and even non reflective language”.

Fr Surlis said part of the work of the seminary staff was learning how to reach out to those who live in the digital culture today. Currently there are just 20 seminarians studying in Maynooth, which since 1795 has prepared men for the priesthood and at its height accommodated 500 student priests. 

“Please God, many young men in this country today will hear that call to be true to what the Lord is asking them to do and not to be afraid because it is not just a life worth living but it is a life that can have such an enormous beneficial impact on the life of the Church going forward,” he said.  

Conference organiser, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan, who is chair of the Council for Vocations, said that in spite of “all the distractions of modern life, God is still calling men to follow him in this way, of that we can be sure”.  

“In my life I have known great priests, both diocesan and religious. I think that most people have known good, hard-working priests. These men have inspired and helped countless people. Right now in Ireland we need more priests.”

The conference in St Patrick’s College Maynooth was also addressed by seminarian Stephen Sherry who paid tribute to his parents’ faith in his own journey as well as from Hilda Grace, the mother of an priest who is serving in the town of Clonmel, who previously worked in Scotland. 

Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry admitted that the model of church in the past was “excessively clericalised”. However, there was no value today, he said, in offering young people a “watered down” version of the church and faith.  

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