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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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