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Posts Tagged ‘Catholic priesthood’

As part of the vocation leaflet project, I was asked to write about the meaning of the Catholic priesthood in 1100 words. When you have so little space, it really forces you to think, and work out what seems most important!

This is what I came up with:

The Catholic priesthood is an extraordinary vocation. Every Christian is called to bring the love of Christ to others. The ministerial priest, through the sacrament of ordination, is called to show that love in a special way.

His vocation is to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith; to lead God’s people in love, as a shepherd, as a spiritual father; and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, ‘for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people’ (Rite of Ordination). His whole being is transformed, so that he can be an icon of Christ for others, filled with the Holy Spirit, and a minister of grace.

Catholic priests are ordinary men who never lose their humanity. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They have different backgrounds and personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. Yet they have all been called like the first disciples: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4).

This is not just an ‘external’ call to do something for Jesus, but an invitation to draw closer to him and share his life more intimately; just as the Apostles, before they were sent out to preach and heal, spent time with the Lord in friendship.

Many priests belong to religious congregations. As monks, friars or missionaries they take the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their ministry is defined by the particular work of the congregation.

The diocesan priest, however, commits his life to serving the Church in his local diocese. It’s a ‘geographical’ commitment to work with his bishop and serve the people of this local area, usually where he has grown up or come to work or study. He is a ‘secular’ priest, which means he lives ‘in the world’ rather than in a monastery, sharing closely in the lives and experiences of others.

Some of the great priests of recent centuries have been diocesan priests: for example, St Francis de Sales, St John Vianney, Blessed John Paul II.

In practice, most diocesan priests live and work in parishes. This is their ‘default’ ministry, where their heart lies. They work in collaboration with their brother priests, with laypeople, and consecrated men and women; caring for the parish together, supporting each other.

Parish ministry is incredibly varied. In a single day a priest might visit children in the school, bring Holy Communion to the sick, support a bereaved family, help a couple prepare for their wedding, hear someone’s confession, prepare sandwiches for the homeless, and lead a sacramental programme in the evening. And so much of priesthood is simply being with others – sitting, listening, talking, praying.

The heart of each day is the celebration of Mass, when all these concerns are offered to the Father in the Holy Sacrifice, and the priest leads his people in worship, repentance, thanksgiving and intercession.

Some diocesan priests work full-time in more specialised ministries, for example, as chaplains in prisons, hospitals, universities or the armed forces. Some even work abroad as missionaries – a reminder that every priest is called to evangelise.

All diocesan priests make three promises. They promise obedience to their bishop, to take up whatever ministry he asks. This helps them to be open to the pastoral needs within the diocese, and it stops them getting attached to their personal preferences. It keeps them humble, open and generous-hearted in the service of the Lord.

They promise consecrated celibacy – to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. This allows a priest to give himself to Christ with an undivided heart, and to love others with an inner freedom and an extra generosity. Even though many Eastern Catholic Churches have a different practice, for Catholics in the Latin (Western) Church celibacy is central to the vision of priesthood as a life of total self-giving.

Finally, they promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully each day. By praying this ‘Prayer of the Church’ at the appointed times, they sanctify every moment of each day. They centre their lives on prayer, praying for the Church and for the whole world.

With these three promises the diocesan priest is rooted in Christ. He is free to follow the Lord, wherever he is sent; free to give his life in love and service. His priestly heart, like the heart of the Good Shepherd, is completely dedicated to God’s people.

The priesthood brings incredible joys, especially in seeing God’s grace transform people’s lives, and in the special bonds that are formed with laypeople and brother priests.

There are also real difficulties and challenges. These can be in the spiritual life, in ministry, or in the ordinary human struggles that afflict everyone at different moments: tiredness, loneliness, stress, failure, sin. Like every Christian, the priest tries to live through his difficulties with faith and hope, staying close to the Lord, trusting in him.

How do you know if God is calling you to be a diocesan priest? First, the basics: only baptised men can become Catholic priests. This is not a form of prejudice or sexism, it is the Church being faithful to Christ and to the Christian Tradition, where only men are appointed to stand ‘in the person of Christ the Head’ as Catholic priests. Women with a genuine call to ministry and service in the Church will find that fulfilled in other ways instead.

Second, you need to have an open heart as you discern your vocation. Any Catholic man who is single and unsure about his future should be able to say, ‘Lord, what is your will for my life? What are you calling me to do?’ What matters is to be open to God’s will, and to pray for his help and guidance.

Third, there are some common signs of a priestly vocation. These include: a simple desire to be a priest or to do the things that priests do (celebrate Mass, preach, pray with people, serve others, etc.); an admiration for priests you know; a sense of being pulled or pushed into the priesthood; suggestions from other people that you might make a good priest; and a desire to pray more and to take your faith more seriously. A feeling of unworthiness can be a sign of humility before such an awe-inspiring vocation; and even a desire to marry, sometimes, can point to a fatherly heart that may be fulfilled in the celibate priesthood – if these other signs are there too.

Finally, you need to talk to someone. There is only so much thinking and praying you can do on your own. This might be a trusted friend or relation, or a priest you know, and ultimately the Vocations Director in your Diocese. Don’t be afraid. The Lord will guide you.

[You can buy bulk copies of this leaflet here at the CTS website.]

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The National Office for Vocation, in association with the Catholic Truth Society, is publishing a new series of leaflets about the different Christian vocations. Take a look at the CTS website here for more information.

They should be very useful, not least because of their size and cost (and of course they are beautifully produced and full of inspiring stories and information!): You get a pack of 25 leaflets for £5.95, so it is easy for a parish or school to splash out, buy a few packs, and distribute the leaflets to various groups without worrying about breaking the bank. Or as an individual you can keep a few in your pocket and hand them out to people on the bus or tube as a form of evangelisation!

The first three were published this month, on marriage, religious life, and diocesan priesthood.

You can also see the new site about religious life from the National Office for Vocation, which also has a micro-site about religious life for 10-16 year olds!

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I’m not trying to argue someone into accepting the importance of celibacy for Catholic priests (I’ve already given my own personal perspective in a previous post); but if you want you want to have a summary of the meaning of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest and deacon, as the Church understands it, there is no better place to look than the ordination rite for a ‘transitional’ deacon who is on the road to priesthood.

This image is from last year's ordinations, but Lorenzo (holding the book) was one of the three ordained this year!

Three of the seminarians from Allen Hall were ordained deacons at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. The beautifully phrased words of their commitment to celibacy really struck me, and reminded me of what my own commitment (made fourteen years ago) is meant to mean in all its richness.

Here are the words the bishop uses:

By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.

By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way.

By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.

By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others.

Therefore, I ask you:

In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?

The candidate replies: ‘I am.’ There is quite a lot contained in those two short words.

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Some of our seminarians at a recent ordination

We are now two weeks into the new academic year at the seminary. Westminster Diocese has just put out a press release about the rise in priestly vocations at Allen Hall over the last few years: 

Eleven men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2010–2011 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London. The new intake of eleven new seminarians brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 46. This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in Westminster diocese and other English and overseas dioceses, including Lancaster, Nottingham and Helsinki, as well as religious orders, including the Salvatorians, Passionists and Norbertines. 

There are now 33 men preparing for the priesthood for the Diocese of Westminster. Eight men started this September with three studying at Allen Hall, three at Vallodolid, Spain, one at the Beda College in Rome and one at the Venerable English College in Rome. 

The statistics for the last few years for Allen Hall are given in a footnote (I’ve added this year’s figure): 

Number of men studying at Allen Hall seminary at the start of academic years since 2002: 2010 – 46, 2009 – 45, 2008 – 43, 2007 – 40, 2006 – 37, 2005 – 31, 2004 – 32, 2003 – 34, 2002 – 33. 

It’s interesting to compare this with figures from the National Office for Vocations of men entering seminary in England and Wales over the last three decades (although I’m not sure if this means ‘in England and Wales’ or ‘for the dioceses of England and Wales’ – which would include those studying in Spain and Rome). You can see a graph here (scroll down), which shows how from a peak in 1985 (156 entrants), to a trough in 2000 (only 22 entrants), things have been slowly picking up (the average over the last four years has been about 40).

And the global picture is also healthy. The most recent reliable Vatican statistics are from the end of 2008:

The Vatican said the number of Catholics reached 1.166 billion, an increase of 19 million, or 1.7 percent, from the end of 2007. During the same period, Catholics as a percentage of the global population grew from 17.33 percent to 17.4 percent, it said.

The number of priests stood at 409,166, an increase of 1,142 from the end of 2007. Since the year 2000, the Vatican said, the number of priests has increased by nearly 4,000, or about 1 percent.

Looking at the way priests are distributed around the world, it said: 47.1 percent were in Europe, 30 percent in the Americas, 13.2 percent in Asia, 8.7 percent in Africa and 1.2 percent in Oceania.

The number of seminarians around the world rose from 115,919 at the end of 2007 to 117,024 at the end of 2008, an increase of more than 1 percent, it said.

The increase in seminarians varied geographically: Africa showed an increase of 3.6 percent, Asia an increase of 4.4 percent, and Oceania an increase of 6.5 percent, while Europe had a decrease of 4.3 percent and the Americas remained about the same.

There is a good article on the BBC website with interviews with seminarians and former-seminarians, and these comments from Fr Stephen Langridge giving some historical perspective. 

Father Stephen Langridge, chairman of England and Wales’ vocations directors, says there was a boom in the number of vocations in the aftermath of World War II compared with the 1920s. He says there was another rise in men entering seminaries following the visit of Pope John Paul in 1982. Figures from the National Office for Vocations show this peaking at 156 in 1985 before falling to a low of 22 in 2001. But over the past five years numbers have steadied at about 40 per year.

Fr Langridge says England has been used to a relatively high concentration of priests compared to other countries – about one for every 350 parishioners. But the fall in vocations since the 1980s means a priest in a parish may now be responsible for two or three smaller churches.

In an attempt to address the shortfall, in recent years the Church has changed its recruitment strategy. Instead of simply asking people to become priests, they now encourage Catholics to pray and discern what God wants them to do. Marriage is also viewed as a vocation, which helps keep people’s minds open to hear a call to the priesthood instead.

Fr Langridge explains: “That means a youngster who’d always thought about marriage, perhaps in the stillness of their prayer suddenly thinks, ‘perhaps there’s something else.’ So the seed of a priestly vocation is sown in that way.”

However you look at it, there was some kind of bottoming out around 2000; and now, both nationally and internationally, the numbers of those in formation for the priesthood is on the rise. 

These are long term trends. I wonder if there will be a short term ‘Benedict bounce’ in our own country.

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