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Saturday was an extraordinary day. Eight deacons were ordained to the Sacred Priesthood in Westminster Cathedral: Oscar Ardila, Jeffrey Downie, Fortunato Pantisano, Giles Pinnock, Martin Plunkett, Jeffrey Steel, Martin Tate and Mark Walker. Seven are from Allen Hall Seminary in London, one is from the Beda in Rome; all are for the Diocese of Westminster.

Fr Mark Walker is from my home parish in Harpenden, and it was a particular joy to be back home on Sunday morning to join him at his first Mass in the parish church of Our Lady of Lourdes.

If you haven’t been to an ordination before, the text below gives you a flavour of some of the prayers and promises from the rite:

Homily

14.  Then all sit, and the bishop addresses the people and the candidate on the duties of a priest.  He may use these words:

This man, your relative and friend, is now to be raised to the order of priests.  Consider carefully the position to which he is to be promoted in the Church.

It is true that God has made his entire people a royal priesthood in Christ.  But our High Priest, Jesus Christ, also chose some of his followers to carry out publicly in the Church a priestly ministry in his name on behalf of mankind.  He was sent by the Father, and he in turn sent the apostles into the world; through them and their successors, the bishops, he continues his work as Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd.  Priests are co-workers of the order of bishops.  They are joined to the bishops in the priestly office and are called to serve God’s people.

Our brother has seriously considered this step and is now to be ordained to priesthood in the presbyteral order.  He is to serve Christ the Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd in his ministry which is to make his own body, the Church, grow into the people of God, a holy temple.

He is called to share in the priesthood of the bishops and to be molded into the likeness of Christ, the supreme and eternal Priest.  By consecration he will be made a true priest of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, sustain God’s people, and celebrate the liturgy, above all, the Lord’s sacrifice.

He then addresses the candidate:

My son, you are now to be advanced to the order of the presbyterate.  You must apply your energies to the duty of teaching in the name of Christ, the chief Teacher.  Share with all mankind the word of God you have received with joy.  Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believer, and put into practice what you teach.

Let the doctrine you teach be true nourishment for the people of God.  Let the example of your life attract the followers of Christ, so that by word and action you may build up the house which is God’s Church.

In the same way you must carry out your mission of sanctifying in the power of Christ.  Your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it with Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through your hands.  Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.  In the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ.

When you baptize, you will bring men and women into the people of God.  In the sacrament of penance, you will forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church.  With holy oil you will relieve and console the sick.  You will celebrate the liturgy and offer thanks and praise to God throughout the day, praying not only for the people of God but for the whole world.  Remember that you are chosen from among God’s people and appointed to act for them in relation to God.  Do your part in the work of Christ the Priest with genuine joy and love, and attend to the concerns of Christ before your own.

Finally, conscious of sharing in the work of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church, and united with the bishop and subject to him, seek to bring the faithful together into a unified family and to lead them effectively, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, to God the Father.  Always remember the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served by to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost.

Examination of the Candidate

15.  The candidate then stands before the bishop who questions him:

My son, before you proceed to the order of the presbyterate, declare before the people your intention to undertake the priestly office.

Are you resolved, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral order as a conscientious fellow worker with the bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?

The candidate answers: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to celebrate the mysteries of Christ faithfully and religiously as the Church has handed them down to us for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the liturgy of the hours for the Church and for the whole world?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the gospel and explaining the Catholic faith?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to consecrate your life to God for the salvation of his people, and to unite yourself more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice?

Candidate: I am, with the help of God.

Promise of Obedience

16.  Then the candidate goes to the bishop and, kneeling before him, places his joined hands between those of the bishop.  If this gesture seems less suitable in some places, the conference of bishops may choose another gesture or sign.

If the bishop is the candidate’s own Ordinary, he asks: Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?

Candidate: I do.

If the bishop is not the candidate’s own Ordinary, he asks: Do you promise respect and obedience to your Ordinary?

Candidate: I do.

Bishop: May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.

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This report on vocations comes from CVComment, and brings together statistics recently released by the National Office for Vocation. I wouldn’t yet call it a vocations boom, but it is a definite and hugely encouraging upturn, as this graph about recent diocesan ordination figures shows.

vocstats1

Here is the full report:

New figures for 2012 show numbers of men and women entering religious orders have risen for the third year running, while ordinations to the priesthood have reached a ten-year high. There were 29 people entering religious life in 2010, rising to 36 in 2011 and 53 in 2012. Meanwhile, 20 men were ordained to the diocesan priesthood in 2011 and 31 in 2012, with 41 diocesan ordinations projected for 2013.

The ordination figures do not include religious men ordained to the priesthood, nor ordinations to the Ordinariate, of which there were 21 last year.

As these two tables show, current diocesan ordination figures (excluding the Ordinariate and the religious orders) are lower than the 1980s-90s, which were inflated by a sudden influx of former Anglican priests as well as the so-called ‘JPII bounce’ following the Pope’s 1982 visit…

Full breakdown of religious order statistics here, seminary entrances here, and ordinations here, supplied by the National Office for Vocation.

It’s the religious order figures that strike me most: last year 53 men and women joined religious communities in England and Wales, the largest number in sixteen years.

[Note: the pre-1982 figures are being disputed/clarified! But it is the upturn in recent years that interests me most...]

[Another note: see this clarification here from CVComment. I have simplified the quotations above in response, so I think the stats in my present post are correct!]

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I preached at the First Mass of a dear friend, Fr Robbie Low – a former Anglican clergyman who was ordained a Catholic priest in October. I was just sent a link to the audio of the sermon, so if you want to listen please click here. Of course it is a very personal homily, but there are some bigger thoughts about the meaning of the priesthood and the Year of Faith that might interest others.

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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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We have been back at Allen Hall for about ten days – a few days of induction and settling in, and then lectures started properly this Monday. It’s great to get stuck into the new year.

Sixteen new seminarians have arrived at Allen Hall – the largest intake in many years. Most of these are ‘first years’ beginning their formation for Catholic priesthood; one or two began elsewhere and are starting a new stage in their formation here.

I was going to entitle this post ‘seminary numbers increasing’, but then I realised that this is the same title I gave to a post at the beginning of the last academic year – which you can read it here. The good news about vocations seems to be continuing, not just here but in other seminaries as well.

 

The other bit of good news is that after much behind-the-scenes work our new website has just been launched. You can see a snapshot above, and if you want to browse around click here.

It looks fantastic. Yes, it’s a WordPress theme! I wish I could find something as crisp for the blog, but I can’t find anything that quite works for me on the free WordPress options. I feel I need a slight refresh – any ideas about blog themes are gratefully received.

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Yesterday on Radio 4′s Something Understood Mark Tully looked into seminary life, past and present. John Cornwell reflects on his experience in ‘junior seminary’ many years ago, and I try to explain what things are like today at Allen Hall. You can listen here – the programme is available online until Sunday 17th June.

St Joseph’s College, Upholland, where John Cornwell went to ‘junior seminary’

Here is the blurb:

In Something Understood this week, Mark Tully is intrigued by life in a Roman Catholic seminary. How are young men trained for the priesthood?

At Allen Hall Seminary in the busy heart of London, Dean of Studies and Formation Advisor Father Stephen Wang explains the need for his students to train for their pastoral role within the Catholic community. Seminarians at Allen Hall spend much of their time in local parishes, schools and hospitals preparing for life as a Diocesan priest. And yet it’s also crucial that they have the quiet, contemplative space they need to develop spiritually. They must become men of God and men of communion.

Mark explores the history of the seminary system, with readings from Anthony Kenny and Denis Meadows, and hears music written by ancient monks in isolation. He speaks to writer and academic John Cornwell, whose own time at Upholland Seminary in the 1950s left a strong imprint on his spiritual life. The Junior Seminary system he experienced from the age of 12 no longer exists, but John believes that there are still serious flaws in the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. He argues that seminarians are too separated out from the world and from the people they are destined to serve once ordained.

Ultimately, becoming a priest requires huge dedication – what Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe described as a ‘falling in love’ with God. Perhaps what is also needed is a balance, between the prosaic and the spiritual, between being within the world and being apart from it.

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I can’t quite believe it, but somehow the number of seminarians in formation at Allen Hall has reached fifty at the beginning of this new academic year. This includes those living at Allen Hall, together with members of religious orders and other houses of formation who are travelling in each day, and seminarians and deacons who are outside the college on full-time pastoral placements.

It’s certainly a significant step, to reach our half-century; and another sign that even if priestly and religious vocations are not quite booming, things are at least looking more positive than a few years ago and moving in a good direction.

The numbers don't match, because this photo includes some seminarians in formation elsewhere, and is missing some of the Allen Hall seminarians!

You can read my enthusiastic post from this time last year, which includes a few more global stats.

And here is the recent press-release from Westminster Diocese:

16 men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London.

The new intake brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 50, up from 46 in 2010 and the sixth consecutive annual increase.

This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in the Diocese of Westminster, other English and overseas diocese including Lancaster, Nottingham, Johannesburg  and Toulon and religious orders including the Salvatorians, Passionists and the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

For the Diocese of Westminster, 32 men are now preparing for the priesthood. 12 men started this September with six studying at Allen Hall, three at the Beda College in Rome and three at the Venerable English College in Rome. A further two men are spending a year ‘discovering priesthood’ at The Royal College of St. Alban, Valladolid, Spain before actually entering seminary.

Damian Ryan is one of the Diocese of Westminster’s new seminarians. He shares some thoughts as he begins this new chapter in his life.

Can you say a little about your journey so far?

After leaving school at 17, I worked as a salesman, a market research supervisor, a chef, and a swimming and football coach. It was then that I realised that I was ready for further studies so at the tender age of 26 I went to study Psychology and Sports studies at the University of Hertfordshire, with the idea of going into sports coaching. God, however, had other ideas!

Looking back, how has God guided you to the seminary?

I felt restless at university about my chosen career path as a sports coach. At the same time I began to want to go to Mass every day, and to learn more about my faith. It was around this time that many people started asking me if I was thinking about priesthood. I thought it was a conspiracy! After talking with my parish priest and chaplain at the university, Fr Mark Vickers, he encouraged me to ‘come and see’ whether or not God was calling me to the priesthood. He kindly offered me a position as parish assistant at St Peter’s Church, Hatfield, to test this. My spiritual director was also fantastic in guiding me with deep wisdom during this period of discernment. As well as receiving encouragement from parishioners at St Peter’s, this journey towards the priesthood has given me an ever-deeper sense of peace which, to me, has been the biggest sign that this is indeed the right step.

How are you feeling as you begin your seminary journey?

Very excited! When I first made the decision to apply to seminary 18 months ago, I wanted to move in straight away! I had to be patient though as God obviously wanted me to wait, and so since then I have continued working in St. Peter’s Church, visiting the sick and housebound, serving at Mass every day, helping with the Chaplaincy, helping and leading catechesis classes, helping to run a youth group, as well as other general parish duties. During this time I’ve come to know the parishioners there, who have been overwhelmingly kind and encouraging, and so, as D-Day approaches, the sense of excitement is tinged with a sadness that I’ll be leaving such a generous, warm, and kind community. But most deeply, as I begin this journey, God willing, towards the priesthood, I feel as if I finally know who I am and who I was made to be. I feel as if the priesthood will complete me in a way that nothing else will.

What advice would you have for anyone else discerning a possible call to the priesthood?

Do not be afraid! Pray, live the Christian life, and frequent the sacraments. If you are a student, going to Mass sometimes during the week is both doable and very good to do. Praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament has helped me enormously, as well as having a good spiritual director. Getting to know good priests, other good Catholics at events such as the ‘Evangelium’ and ‘Faith’ conferences, where you can meet many others who are discerning a possible call to priesthood as well as learning more about our faith, are very good things to do too. The main thing is to be courageous, relax, and to let Jesus do the work. He knows what he’s doing.

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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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Many Catholics think that the main step on the road towards priesthood is the decision to go to seminary. There is some truth in this: You think, you pray, you discern; you put in your application. If you are accepted, you take the plunge, and that involves leaving a job, moving home, starting a completely new life, and the challenge of telling friends and family that this is really happening.

Allen Hall Seminary - Front Door

But sometime around the middle of your seminary formation you take the formal step of becoming a ‘candidate’ for ordination. On Saturday evening here at Allen Hall four men celebrated their own candidacy. What’s it all about? How can you become a candidate for ordination when you are already a committed seminarian three or four years down the road to priesthood?

Here are one or two passages from the Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI which set it all up.

Since entrance into the clerical state is deferred until diaconate, there no longer exists the rite of first tonsure, by which a layman used to become a cleric. But a new rite is introduced, by which one who aspires to the diaconate or priesthood publicly manifests his will to offer himself to God and the Church, so that he may exercise a sacred order. The Church, accepting this offering, selects and calls him to prepare himself to receive a sacred order, and in this way he is properly numbered among candidates for the diaconate or priesthood [...]

1. (a) A rite of admission for candidates to the diaconate and to the priesthood is introduced. In order that this admission be properly made, the free petition of the aspirant made out and signed in his own hand, is required, as well as the written acceptance of the competent ecclesiastical superior, by which the selection by the church is brought about. Professed members of clerical congregations who seek the priesthood are not bound to this rite.

(b) The competent superior for this acceptance is the ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes of perfection, the major superior). Those can be accepted who give signs of an authentic vocation and, endowed with good moral qualities and free from mental and physical defects, wish to dedicate their lives to the service of the Church for the glory of God and the good of souls. It is necessary that those who aspire to the transitional diaconate will have completed at least their twentieth year and have begun their course of theological studies.

(c) In virtue of the acceptance the candidate must care for his vocation in a special way and foster it. He also acquires the right to the necessary spiritual assistance by which he can develop his vocation and submit unconditionally to the will of God.

You can see what a special moment this is for each of the candidates, and for the Church. It’s not just a formality or an external recognition that they have ‘put the hours in’. It’s a way of offering oneself to God and to the Church, freely and publicly, and having the Church accept that offering. It’s a new commitment, not just to enter more wholeheartedly into the process of discernment, but to actively foster the priestly vocation. There is a psychological and spiritual shift. From this moment onwards, the assumption is that this man has been called by the Lord to priesthood, and in fact the ceremony itself acts as a public call by the Church.

Candidacy would have the same significance, more or less, as a couple getting engaged. They move from wondering and questioning to committing and planning. It doesn’t mean the wedding or ordination is inevitable, and it’s important that each person still feels completely free – but you’d need a major rethink to call it off.

It was a great evening for everyone involved!

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Last night I filled in the 2011 Census form. It was a fairly quick and boring procedure, punctuated with one or two unexpected moments of existential and theological crisis.

Question 15. Not ‘What is your national identity?’ but ‘How would you describe your national identity?’ I automatically filled in British rather than English, not because I feel more British than English, but because I’m used to filling in forms that want to know the objective/legal answer, i.e. what is on your passport. But then I realised when I checked over the whole form at the end that it said Tick all that apply (it made all the double-checking I’ve ever done in my life worth it!) So it now says English plus British; but the psychoanalysts and sociologists interpreting my input will never know which I ticked first – which is the most telling point – unless they are reading this blog.

Question 16. ‘What is your ethnic group?’ rather than ‘How would you describe your ethnic group’ – as if national identity (Q15) is something subjective and self-chosen but ethnicity (Q16) is something more objective. Again, I struggled here. I’m 1/4 English, 1/4 Scottish and 1/2 Chinese in terms of ethnic roots. The only given box I could tick was B#3 White and Asian – but the Chinese element is important to me (subjectively) and makes me quite distinct from someone from India or Japan (objectively).

So I ticked B#4 Any other Mixed/multiple ethnic background, and wrote in ‘White and Chinese’. But then I realised I could equally have put ‘Chinese and White’ in that box, or I could have gone onto box C#4 instead (Any other Asian background) and written the same answer there (‘Chinese and White’). And objectively speaking I am just as much Chinese and White as White and Chinese.

I’m torn here. I want to give both answers, to show that I am not giving more objective weight to the Chinese or White – in terms of ethnicity. But I am only allowed to choose one section. And if I tick both, as a sort of existential protest about the limitations being imposed on my self-understanding, then will I have to pay the fine, or do the whole form again?

Question 20. ‘What is your religion?’ A voluntary question, that has only one box for ‘Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)’. I understand how it’s a good thing, sociologically and theologically, not to treat these Christian groups as different religions; but it would have been interesting to know the details for C of E, Catholic, Protestant, etc – if you are going to do this kind of question; or to add an extra line to say ‘What Christian group (or church or denomination…) do you belong to?’ or whatever.

Question 35. Now we move into theology proper. Q34 was easy – I put ‘Roman Catholic priest’ as my job title. Even though it is much more than a job (it’s a vocation, a calling, a part of who I am) – I think this is a fair stab at what they are asking. But Q35 asks Briefly describe what you do in your main job. How do you do that in 34 characters? That’s characters not words! I wanted to get some great theological summary of the priestly ministry in here, but in the end I copped out and put ‘pastoral ministry’. Now, after reflection, I think I should have put ‘priestly ministry’, because many laity are involved in pastoral ministry; but it’s too late.

Question 37. This is the one that brought me to a state of existential and theological paralysis (you can tell it was quite a traumatic evening). ‘What is the main activity of your employer or business?’ Saving souls? Heaven? Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? Sanctification? Building the Kingdom? Filling the pews? 

Instead, I ducked, and gave a bureaucratic answer, as if to address the slightly different question of ‘what kind of “business” is your employer involved in?’ – and I wrote ‘Religion’. I know. It’s weak. It’s a lost opportunity for witness. And it’s not really true. The Church isn’t about ‘doing’ religion; it’s about faith, hope, charity; adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication; justice, peace and love; the worship of God and the witness of life; the renewal and recapitulation of all things in Christ; and many, many other beautiful things – none of which made my census form.

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Fr Vincent Van Vossel, CSSR, Superior of the Redemptorists in Baghdad, speaks about the terrible choices facing Christians in Iraq after the massacre that took place on 31 October in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation.

Iraqi Christians are now terrified and in shock. They are faced with a terrible dilemma: emigrate and save the lives of their loved ones, or stay in the country and witness to the faith, risking death.

The massacre was widely reported. Aid to the Church in Need have produced this short video about the worsening plight of Iraqi Christians.

This is the rest of the report about Fr Vincent’s comments, which comes from Fides and Aid to the Church in Need:

A commando of terrorists linked to al Qaeda stormed the church, crowded with faithful during the Mass, taking those present hostage. Iraqi security forces made a raid to free them, but the the militants reacted with a massacre that left 58 dead, including two priests, and about 70 wounded.

Fr Vincent, who has lived in Iraq for 40 years and teaches at Babel College in Baghdad, the college affiliated with the Pontifical Urban University, has issued a heartfelt testimony to Fides: “We are living something that is really terrible. There had never been a massacre of such magnitude, all within a church during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. I have visited the church and listened to the testimonies of the faithful in shock. The terrorists mercilessly killed women and children. The community is traumatized. The church looked like a cemetery.”

The Christian community in Baghdad has lost two young Syro-Catholic priests, Fr Wasim Sabieh and Fr Thaier Saad Abdal, while a third priest, Chorepiscop Fr Rufail Quataimi, is still in the hospital in a serious condition.

“What a tragedy! The two priests who died, not yet in their thirties, were my students at the College. They were very active in Bible apostolate, in interfaith dialogue, and charity. Fr Thaier was in charge of a Centre for Islamic Studies, and Fr Wasin was very involved in helping poor families. We will miss them,” said Fr Vincent.

The Redemptorist recalls that “yesterday a number of attacks hit Baghdad and Shiite areas, which means that not only Christians are under attack, but the whole area is flooded by terrorism. It is hard to see a hopeful future for the nation right now,” he said. “We do not know who is behind these acts, nor where the nation is headed.

Meanwhile, the people suffer. There are such great evils that beset the country.” Hence, the dilemma for Christians: “The faithful say their life has become impossible. Many Christian families are organizing themselves to leave the country. The excruciating dilemma is whether to flee in search of a better future, or stay, risking their lives. In this tragic moment, the Bishops have a great responsibility to speak to the faithful, to give their reasons and hopes, to convince them to stay. The task of our pastors, today, is very difficult,” he remarked.

The funeral was held yesterday, says the Redemptorist missionary. “It was attended by many Muslim leaders who asked the government to defend Christians. We hope that, after yet another massacre, civil authorities listen to the cry of Christians in Iraq and place an end to their suffering.”

The Christian Churches for the Iraqi communities in the UK have arranged a joint remembrance service for the worshippers killed at Our Lady of Salvation for the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad on Sunday. It will be take place on Friday 12 November [NOTE NEW DATE], at 7pm at the Syrian Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Church, 4 Brook Green, London W6 7BL.

This is the response of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, speaking for the Catholic Church in England and Wales:

I want to express my horror at the atrocity that occurred at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karada, Baghdad and my solidarity with those who suffered and died. This massacre has taken a terrible toll on a vulnerable and diminishing Christian community that, along with other religious minorities, continues to suffer persecution. My thoughts and prayers are with all those Iraqis who struggle against violence and extremism. The Christians of the Middle East have a special vocation as peace builders, as the recent Synod emphasised. I know that they will continue to be faithful to that mission and that Catholics in this country will continue to support the Iraqi Church.

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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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St Hilda of Whitby, Abbess

I’ve just written a piece about women and the priesthood, in response to this week’s bus campaign promoting women’s ordination. It was posted on Independent Catholic News, and then used as the basis for an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, which has so far received a staggering 1087 comments! Not all of them very edifying…

Anyway, the copyright is mine, so I can paste the original article here for anyone who is interested:

Last year the religious slogans on London’s buses were hesitant, and ended with gentle exhortations: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Now they end with a shout: “Pope Benedict – Ordain Women Now!”

The latest posters, timed to coincide with the Papal visit, are funded by the campaigning group Catholic Women’s Ordination. It’s unlikely that Pope Benedict will be using his Oystercard, but the hope must be that if his Popemobile gets stuck in traffic, one of these buses will glide by and catch his attention.

The Catholic insistence that only men can be ordained as priests is incomprehensible to many people, and the cause of much personal anger and ecumenical heartache. Pope John Paul II seemed to close the door to any revision when he wrote in 1994 that this teaching “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”.

He took a surprising approach. He didn’t stamp his feet and shout: I won’t! Instead he said: I simply can’t. I don’t have the authority to change something that has been such a fundamental part of Christian identity from the very beginning. The argument is not about holding onto the past for its own sake, but trying to be faithful to what Jesus wanted for his Church.

In the New Testament, Jesus chose twelve men to represent him as his first priests, as the Twelve Apostles. Every generation of Catholics (and Orthodox) since then has understood this to have been a choice that was deliberate and significant, not just for that first period of history, but for every age.

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have done otherwise in the Jewish society of his time. This doesn’t stand up, as he was quite willing to involve women in other aspects of his mission and ministry, in ways that would have seemed revolutionary.

Others say that women’s ordination, even if Jesus had wanted it, simply wasn’t conceivable in the pre-feminist religious cultures of the last 2000 years. But this ignores the staggering diversity of cultures in which Christianity has been embedded.

Even in societies that have been broadly matriarchal (with rich Roman matrons running the early Christian house churches, or powerful medieval abbesses ruling ‘double’ monasteries of men and women); even when women ‘priestesses’ were an established part of the surrounding religious milieu – Christians still took for granted the idea of the male priesthood.

This is why Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict, are saying that this is much more than a time-bound cultural norm that needs updating. It’s something deeper that touches on the very meaning of priesthood.

This teaching is not at all a judgment on women’s abilities or dignity or rights. It says something about the specific role of the priest in Catholic understanding – which is to represent Jesus, to stand in his place. The Church is saying something quite radical. On the one hand, there is a fundamental equality between all human beings, between men and women. On the other hand, this does not mean that our sexual identity as men and women is interchangeable. Gender is not just an accident.

People sense this. If I announced that I was making a film about Jesus or King Arthur or Wayne Rooney, no-one would be surprised if I said I wanted a male actor to play the lead. It’s a weak analogy, but it shows how the notion of ‘representation’ can only be stretched so far. A woman, as much as a man, can reflect the love of Jesus, and help others to know his presence through her faith and witness. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we expect a man to stand ‘in the person of Christ’ as a priest, to represent Jesus in his humanity – a humanity that is not sexually neutral.

Where does this leave women in the Catholic Church? In the same position as the majority of men (that is, all those who are not priests). It leaves them to live their faith passionately in the service of others, to use their many gifts to the full, and to realise that ordination is not the measure of an individual’s worth in the Church.

The young Catholic women I know, especially those with a strong sense of vocation in the Church, are channelling their energies into all sorts of creative projects and life choices. Some of these choices are very humble and hidden; others involve more public responsibilities – in politics, education, social work, Christian mission, the media, etc. Most are working ‘in the world’, but some have very significant roles within the Church itself.

These young women seem less interested in internal debates about ordination, and more concerned with rolling their sleeves up and putting their faith into practice. They are Christian feminists, whether they like the title or not. But it is a feminism that is untroubled by this Catholic understanding of the male priesthood.

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We have had three separate ordinations this month — two men were ordained deacons and one a priest. It’s quite unusual for January.

One of the moments that always strikes people most powerfully is just after the prayer of ordination, when the new deacon or priest is clothed with his new vestments for the first time.

St Edmund in Pontificals

There is a natural human pride in seeing someone finally ‘make it’ to the end of a long journey (and the beginning of another one). But there is something deeper too: The recognition that the ‘office’ of being an ordained minister matters more than the gifts or personality of the individual, that the gift of ordination is much more than what the person deserves in his own right.

Father Dermot Power, a friend and colleague here at the seminary where I work, is often saying that part of the poverty of being a priest, the asceticism, is this anonymity. In quite a touching and telling way, most Catholics know that in a moment of crisis ‘any priest will do’ — as long as he can hear my confession, or come to the hospital at three o’clock in the morning, or celebrate the baptism of my child.

There is no disrespect or lack of love here, and Catholics have a huge well of affection for the priests that they know. It’s simply that the treasure of sacramental ordination is more important than the earthenware vessel that carries it. Or put another way, as von Balthasar said, priests are pygmies in giants’ clothing.

It’s very humbling, as a priest, to be reminded of the enormity of the gift of ordination, and to be reminded that the gifts we share as priests with others — especially the sacraments that we minister — are far beyond what we have to give through our natural abilities.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no dignity associated simply with being human, or with the grace of being a Christian. It simply highlights the particular grace that comes with ordination, for which we can all be grateful – whether ordained or not.

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