Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Encouraging Younger Vocations

"The vocations crisis in this country will never be over until we regain the confidence to accept younger vocations". These words, spoken by a well-known former vocations director, now Vicar General of his diocese, have stuck with me.
To respond to a vocation is to give oneself in love. To be sure, many teenagers who 'fall in love' do not stay together and, indeed, that can be a good thing. We can learn a lot about ourselves and about the reality of love from these adolescent romances. But our relationship with God is quite different. For a start, it is a relationship that is supposed to start and never end no matter how young we are. Secondly, as that relationship grows we have to face up to only our own shortcomings - not God's!
As May approaches I can't help but reflect on the fact that Our Lady was very young when she responded to God's call. Her 'Yes' had dramatic consequences. It wasn't easy for her. Indeed, it led her to the Cross. The main point is that she was faithful. That's what God asks of us: fidelity.
Perhaps it was the sad exodus from the priesthood from the 1960s that led people to be hesitant about encouraging younger vocations. I hope it is a fear that can be left behind and that instead of responding nervously when a young man presents himself for the priesthood, we can rejoice at his generosity, and pray for his fidelity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Discovering Priesthood Day

Yesterday we had another of our Discovering Priesthood Days. We try to hold these in different parts of the diocese and it was nice to be back at Lewisham where we were made so welcome last year. It was our largest Discovering Priesthood Day so far with lads from all over South East London as well as a good group from Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Once again we were looked after by the Union of Catholic Mothers - including Pearl who deserves a special mention because it was her 80th birthday.

Fr Sean O'Connor led the day which began with a testimony from Fr Marcus Holden who recently moved to Tunbridge Wells after three years in Balham. There was also a showing of the film 'Fishers of Men'. Bishop Patrick Lynch joined us for the day and spoke of his religious vocation (he is a Picpus Father). After questions I spoke about the call to holiness and the practical ways in which we live it. Holy Mass was followed by lunch and sports. Fr Chris Connor, the parish priest, treated us to a takeaway from a local Indian restaurant that apparently has a Sacred Heart statue amongst its panoply of Hindu gods.

After the lunch break I spoke more directly about the different vocations in the Church and how to discern them. We then had our usual 'Priest on the Hotseat' session with questions ranging from "Why do you wear a collar?" to "If God is spirit how can he have an image?" The day ended with Benediction in the Church.

Discovering Priesthood Days are easy to organise because the formula is straightforward. It's good to have a priest who will speak enthusiastically about his vocation and priestly life. The film 'Fishers of Men' offers a different medium for raising questions about priesthood. Mass, Confessions and a time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament are important. So is having some outside space where youngsters can run around and shake off some energy. After all, we want them to go home feeling they've had a really enjoyable day! It is the sort of thing a Parish Vocation Team can organise inviting, perhaps, all the other parishes of the Deanery to send youngsters. Those who come need not be thinking explicitly about priesthood - altar servers and confirmation candidates would be good groups to target.

Do these days have any effect? I'm sure they do but don't take my word for it. Here's an email that arrived this morning:
The day was wonderful. Thanks for organising it. Here is my email. Please inform me of any programs going on. I will try my best to come to it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Discernment - a two-way task

Vocations directors meet lots of men who think they have a vocation to the priesthood. Unfortunately it is not so straightforward and a sizeable number of those who enquire are clearly not suited to be priests. Vocations discernment has two sides to it. The individual comes to the conclusion that there is a possibility God is calling him to priesthood. He must then subject himself to the judgement of the Church. A recent document of the Holy See reminds us that in the end it is the Church who must discern a person’s suitability. In so doing she has to bear in mind that the priestly ministry requires certain human and spiritual qualities which can be compromised or made more difficult given some personal dispositions or the social climate in which she functions.

“Some of these qualities merit particular attention: the positive and stable sense of one's masculine identity, and the capacity to form relations in a mature way with individuals and groups of people; a solid sense of belonging, which is the basis of future communion with the presbyterium and of a responsible collaboration in the ministry of the bishop; the freedom to be enthused by great ideals and a coherence in realizing them in everyday action; the courage to take decisions and to stay faithful to them; a knowledge of oneself, of one's talents and limitations, so as to integrate them within a self-esteem before God; the capacity to correct oneself; the appreciation for beauty in the sense of “splendour of the truth” as well as the art of recognizing it; the trust that is born from an esteem of the other person and that leads to acceptance; the capacity of the candidate to integrate his sexuality in accordance with the Christian vision, including in consideration of the obligation of celibacy”. [Guidelines for the use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood].

It may be true that some of those who present themselves are from the outset clearly unsuitable as candidates for the priesthood but that is not always the case. Part of the Vocations Director’s job is, therefore, to get to know the candidates well before he puts them forward for selection. There is, after all, no point putting someone forward only in order to have them rejected. If you, or someone you know, is thinking of the priesthood it would be good to contact your Vocations Director as soon as possible.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Snakes on a Plane

When I was visiting my brother, Dominic & his family, in Australia after World Youth Day he told me that they often found poisonous snakes basking in the sun on the lawn of their house, overlooking the water. I went with his family for a few days further north to the place where Captain Cook landed. The beach there had notices warning of Stone Fish. On the way back we found an enormous spider in the car. Great!
A couple of years ago a priest friend and I watched the film 'Snakes on a Plane'. It was very funny but not something you'd want to come true. So I can't resist an item from the news today - hey Dom - it's happened. Four pythons escaped on a flight from Melbourne. Good job they weren't poisonous...

Holy Week with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

I greatly admire the Friars of the Renewal and consider myself privileged to have some contact with the community in Canning Town. They get a reasonable number of vocations from England but are in no way in competition with diocesan vocations directors. The two vocations are totally different. The Friars don't seem to have any developed programme to fish for vocations. They just live the Gospel and that attracts young men.
Here's a slideshow I saw recently on the Roman Catholic Vocations Blog.

Click the photo to see the show.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Seeking Wisdom

For my homilies over the Triduum I contrasted human and divine wisdom.
This year, although we have heard a lot about Charles Darwin, I have been struck by how little attention has been paid to his personal life. In many ways he died a broken man: he wrote that he longed for the grave in Down Churchyard. Coming from a solid philanthropical background, Darwin found his 'scientific' logic to be at odds with his heart. The man who concluded that it was folly to permit the sick to breed, found that some of his own children were weak and unhealthy. Darwin's anointed successor on the continent was Ernst Haeckel thanks to whom the concept of 'unlebenswurdig' - or life unworthy of living - first enters the German dictionary. Darwin's son Leonard became chairman of the British Eugenics Society. It is as if, in doing away with the Creator, the way had been paved for the destruction also of the creature. This is contrasted with God's love which embraces every individual and gives it worth and dignity.
On Good Friday I spoke of the folly of the Cross from a human perspective and how God's wisdom can transform even human suffering.
I developed this theme further at the Vigil. The light of the Resurrection enables us to see clearly the hand of God not just in the created world but also in the whole history of salvation. I put a particular emphasis on faith as man's response, arguing that faith isn't just a matter of believing what has been revealed but is also about putting our trust in the one who is revealed.
This year, once again we had good numbers at all our services. I was particularly pleased to see a lot of young people who had made the effort to join us.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Theme: Faith in the divine initiative - the human response

Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Brothers and Sisters,

On the occasion of the next World Day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life, which will be celebrated on 3 May 2009, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, I want to invite all the People of God to reflect on the theme: Faith in the divine initiative - the human response. The exhortation of Jesus to his disciples: “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38) has a constant resonance in the Church. Pray! The urgent call of the Lord stresses that prayer for vocations should be continuous and trusting. The Christian community can only really “have ever greater faith and hope in God's providence” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 26) if it is enlivened by prayer.

The vocation to the priesthood and to the consecrated life constitutes a special gift of God which becomes part of the great plan of love and salvation that God has for every man and woman and for the whole of humanity. The Apostle Paul, whom we remember in a special way during this Pauline Year dedicated to the Two-thousandth anniversary of his birth, writing to the Ephesians says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ef 1:3-4). In the universal call to holiness, of particular relevance is God’s initiative of choosing some to follow his Son Jesus Christ more closely, and to be his privileged ministers and witnesses. The divine Master personally called the Apostles “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14-15); they, in turn, gathered other disciples around them as faithful collaborators in this mission. In this way, responding to the Lord’s call and docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit, over the centuries, countless ranks of priests and consecrated persons placed themselves totally at the service of the Gospel in the Church. Let us give thanks to God, because even today he continues to call together workers into his vineyard. While it is undoubtedly true that a worrisome shortage of priests is evident in some regions of the world, and that the Church encounters difficulties and obstacles along the way, we are sustained by the unshakable certitude that the one who firmly guides her in the pathways of time towards the definitive fulfilment of the Kingdom is he, the Lord, who freely chooses persons of every culture and of every age and invites them to follow him according to the mysterious plans of his merciful love.

Our first duty, therefore, is to keep alive in families and in parishes, in movements and in apostolic associations, in religious communities and in all the sectors of diocesan life this appeal to the divine initiative with unceasing prayer. We must pray that the whole Christian people grows in its trust in God, convinced that the “Lord of the harvest” does not cease to ask some to place their entire existence freely at his service so as to work with him more closely in the mission of salvation. What is asked of those who are called, for their part, is careful listening and prudent discernment, a generous and willing adherence to the divine plan, and a serious study of the reality that is proper to the priestly and religious vocations, so as to be able to respond responsibly and with conviction.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly reminds us that God’s free initiative requires a free response on the part of men and women; a positive response which always presupposes acceptance of and identification with the plan that God has for everyone; a response which welcomes the Lord’s loving initiative and becomes, for the one who is called, a binding moral imperative, an offering of thanksgiving to God and a total cooperation with the plan which God carries out in history (cf. n. 2062).

Contemplating the mystery of the Eucharist, which expresses in a sublime way the free gift of the Father in the Person of his Only Begotten Son for the salvation of mankind, and the full and docile readiness of Christ to drink to the dregs the “cup” of the will of God (cf. Mt 26:39), we can more readily understand how “faith in the divine initiative” models and gives value to the “human response”. In the Eucharist, that perfect gift which brings to fulfilment the plan of love for the redemption of the world, Jesus offers himself freely for the salvation of mankind. “The Church”, my beloved predecessor John Paul II wrote, “has received the Eucharist from Christ her Lord not as a gift – however precious – among so many others, but as the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of himself, of his person in his sacred humanity, as well as the gift of his saving work” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 11).

It is priests who are called to perpetuate this salvific mystery from century to century until the Lord’s glorious return, for they can contemplate, precisely in the Eucharistic Christ, the eminent model of a “vocational dialogue” between the free initiative of the Father and the faithful response of Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist it is Christ himself who acts in those whom he chooses as his ministers; he supports them so that their response develops in a dimension of trust and gratitude that removes all fear, even when they experience more acutely their own weakness (cf. Rm 8:26-28), or indeed when the experience of misunderstanding or even of persecution is most bitter (cf. Rm 8:35-39).

The awareness of being saved by the love of Christ, which every Mass nourishes in the faithful and especially in priests, cannot but arouse within them a trusting self-abandonment to Christ who gave his life for us. To believe in the Lord and to accept his gift, therefore, leads us to entrust ourselves to Him with thankful hearts, adhering to his plan of salvation. When this does happen, the one who is “called” voluntarily leaves everything and submits himself to the teaching of the divine Master; hence a fruitful dialogue between God and man begins, a mysterious encounter between the love of the Lord who calls and the freedom of man who responds in love, hearing the words of Jesus echoing in his soul, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (Jn 15:16).

This intertwining of love between the divine initiative and the human response is present also, in a wonderful way, in the vocation to the consecrated life. The Second Vatican Council recalls, “The evangelical counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty and obedience are based upon the words and examples of the Lord. They were further commanded by the apostles and Fathers of the Church, as well as by the doctors and pastors of souls. The counsels are a divine gift, which the Church received from its Lord and which it always safeguards with the help of His grace” (Lumen Gentium, 43).
Once more, Jesus is the model of complete and trusting adherence to the will of the Father, to whom every consecrated person must look. Attracted by him, from the very first centuries of Christianity, many men and women have left families, possessions, material riches and all that is humanly desirable in order to follow Christ generously and live the Gospel without compromise, which had become for them a school of deeply rooted holiness. Today too, many undertake this same demanding journey of evangelical perfection and realise their vocation in the profession of the evangelical counsels. The witness of these our brothers and sisters, in contemplative monasteries, religious institutes and congregations of apostolic life, reminds the people of God of “that mystery of the Kingdom of God is already at work in history, even as it awaits its full realization in heaven” (Vita Consecrata, 1).

Who can consider himself worthy to approach the priestly ministry? Who can embrace the consecrated life relying only on his or her own human powers? Once again, it is useful to reiterate that the response of men and women to the divine call, whenever they are aware that it is God who takes the initiative and brings His plan of salvation to fulfilment, is never patterned after the timid self-interest of the worthless servant who, out of fear, hid the talent entrusted to him in the ground (cf. Mt 25:14-30), but rather expresses itself in a ready adherence to the Lord’s invitation, as in the case of Peter who, trusting in the Lord’ word, did not hesitate to let down the net once more even after having toiled all night and catching nothing (cf. Lk 5:5). Without in any sense renouncing personal responsibility, the free human response to God thus becomes “co-responsibility”, responsibility in and with Christ, through the action of his Holy Spirit; it becomes communion with the One who makes it possible for us to bear much fruit (cf. Jn 15:5).

An emblematic human response, full of trust in God’s initiative, is the generous and unmitigated “Amen” of the Virgin of Nazareth, uttered with humble and decisive adherence to the plan of the Most High announced to her by God’s messenger (cf. Lk 1:38). Her prompt “Yes” allowed Her to become the Mother of God, the Mother of our Saviour. Mary, after this first “fiat”, had to repeat it many times, even up to the culminating moment of the crucifixion of Jesus, when “standing by the cross of Jesus” as the Evangelist John notes, she participated in the dreadful suffering of her innocent Son. And it was from the cross, that Jesus, while dying, gave her to us as Mother and entrusted us to her as sons and daughters (cf. Jn 19:26-27); she is especially the Mother of priests and consecrated persons. I want to entrust to her all those who are aware of God’s call to set out on the road of the ministerial priesthood or consecrated life.

Dear friends, do not become discouraged in the face of difficulties and doubts; trust in God and follow Jesus faithfully and you will be witnesses of the joy that flows from intimate union with him. Imitating the Virgin Mary whom all generations proclaim as blessed because she believed (cf. Lk 1:48), commit yourselves with every spiritual energy, to realise the heavenly Father’s plan of salvation, cultivating in your heart, like her, the ability to be astonished and to adore him who is mighty and does “great things”, for Holy is his name (cf. Lk 1:49).

From the Vatican, 20 January 2009

Sunday, April 05, 2009

H/T to Fr Tim Finigan for this new vocations video by students from the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in the United States.

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. We leave behind the mad rush of last week and enter Holy Week with great solemnity. Our main Mass begins outside with the Blessing of Palms, proclamation of the Gospel and Solemn Procession. Term is already over so our numbers are down a bit today: only 1102 people at Mass. Nevertheless I was pleased to see quite a few join us for the main Mass and Procession. The route back into the Church takes us along a path with raised flower beds on either side and, for a short distance, on the public footpath. I like to use all these elements. For me it is a physical reminder of the fact that we are to enter Holy Week with our whole being.
After Mass seven of us sat down for an enjoyable lunch.

One of the features this Lent has been to try to get people to read more about their faith. We have a CTS display in the narthex that we keep up to date with new titles as they come out. Luckily I have a kind parishioner who looks after this for me. I'm always impressed at the variety of booklets we stock and at how rapidly we go through them. I'm also pleased that, having plugged them for Lent, quite a few people have told me that they have found them very helpful.

Canterbury Chaplaincy

On Tuesday evening I travelled down to John Stone House, the Catholic University Chaplaincy in Canterbury. Fr Peter Geldard the university chaplain always invites me down in the spring to give a talk about vocations to the students.
I'm very impressed by the Chaplaincy. Fr Peter is an excellent chaplain: he is dedicated and hard-working and organises a great range of activities for the students. He knows his students well and they clearly have a great affection for him. He keeps in contact with them all through an e-newsletter. After the talk there is a meal followed by the opening of the student bar - or The Barque as it is known. Donations for the meal go towards sponsoring a trip to Lourdes for one of the students. Some of the students leave after the meal to get back to their studies but for those who stay there is a screening of 'Fishers of Men' which has lost nothing of its ability to impress and inspire. One fo the girls tells me she is considering religious life and a couple of lads have a chat about priestly vocations.
Since Canterbury is quite some way from my parish, he kindly lets me stay overnight and we have breakfast together which gives us a chance to catch up on news - diocesan and otherwise.

Catholic Underground

No sooner had the Catenians left than preparations began in earnest for London'd first 'Catholic Underground' event which took place that evening. The organisers had told me they would be very pleased if about forty people turned up. As it was we had a hundred and fifty for a great evening that began with a Holy Hour and vespers in the church led by Br John Bosco. This had a profound effect on some of those who attended. If we measure according to what people put on their Facebook pages, at least one person that evening decided God was calling him to become a priest.
After the Holy Hour we made our way into the school hall where the evening's entertainment began with Dan Driver, a promising young singer song-writer. The idea of Catholic Underground is to provide a forum for Christian artists and so perhaps it should have been no surprised to hear a piece inspired by the Screwtape Letters and another called 'The Unmoved Mover'. After Dan we had the New Jerusalem Project with some feisty Catholic lyrics and finally Ejiro, a young Christian rap artist.
Was the evening a success? Well at least one Facebook profile was changed to "Catholic Underground changed my life"!

Handbook for Parish Vocation Teams

Last Saturday we welcomed Bishop Pat Lynch to the parish for the launch of a new diocesan 'Handbook for Parish Vocation Teams'. The event was organised by the Catenians who have a special interest in promoting vocations and it was good to hear an encouraging speach from Vernon d'Cruz who has taken on responsibility for the Catenians' vocations work at a national level.
One of the Catenians, Andrew Martin, had worked hard to galavanise support for the day and I was pleased to see lay men and women, priests and deacons, as well as religious brothers and sisters from all over the diocese.
As part of the day I gave a presentation on the theology and scope of vocation in the Church ending with an introduction to the new Handbook itself. I explained that a 'culture of vocation' is one in which every person is enabled to take seriously the fact that they receive a personal call from the Lord. When we learn to be attentive to that call - which for most people will be marriage - and when we learn to value the various specific vocations in the Church, men and women will begin to listen to the 'still small voice of God' and to respond with generosity to whatever he has in mind for them. The idea of a Parish Vocation Team is that a group of people be formed in each parish who will use their wit and ingenuity to promote a 'culture of vocation' at every level of parish life. The practical importance of establishing a group like this is twofold: first of all, every parish is different and needs to find its own ways of promoting vocations. Secondly, there is no one 'recipe' - by getting lots of people involved in promoting vocations we will be able to share good ideas.
We have now sent two copies of the Handbook to every parish in the hope that parish priests will keep one and pass the other on to someone who can establish a team. The book contains everything needed to get them going, from a short explanation of the theology of vocation, through to a sample constitution and practical ideas they may be able to implement in their parishes.
After Easter I shall meet again with the Catenians to discuss how we can further this important project.