Fr Billy Swan
From 18th to 19th November this year, St Patrick’s College Maynooth will host a Vocations ‘Come and See’ weekend, organized by the National Vocations Office. All of the places available have been booked. While it is important not to get too carried away at this early stage, it is definitely a sign of hope and evidence of the Spirit at work in the lives of people discerning their future.
What is interesting to observe is that this development is taking place at a time when lay ministry and the dignity of all the baptised have never been emphasised as much, certainly here in Ireland. This focus on the call of baptism comes at a time of fewer priests but ought to have happened much sooner, irrespective of the pastoral needs that are emerging now that priests are scarce. For some, this elevation of the dignity of all the baptised and the importance of lay ministry comes with a fear of diminishing the importance of the ministry of priests. There is a concern that if we widen the understanding of vocation to all the baptised then the uniqueness of a vocation to the priesthood is undermined or diluted at best.
Yet, the small green shoot of the numbers signed up for the vocations weekend would seem to suggest the opposite is happening. Namely, that the renewal of priestly ministry and priestly identity is happening within and not apart from the renewal of the whole Church. Here is another wonderful paradox of the Spirit’s work described beautifully by Pope St John Paul II when he wrote on priestly formation in 1992: ‘The more the laity's own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out’ (para. 3).
Could it be that this is what is happening? Could it be that a new cohort of men are being attracted to the priesthood because of the greater closeness of priests and people now working and witnessing together? Let’s hope so, but the signs are good. Many priests I know speak of this time as a time of challenge and yet hope where the laity are finally beginning to be co-responsible for the life and mission of the Church. Many priests describe this as a time when they feel more supported and less isolated than in the past.
In keeping with the traditional Catholic principle of ‘both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’, what’s important to avoid is any impression that the Church’s future depends on either lay people or priests. It must be a case of laity and priests witnessing and working in close proximity, where the ministerial priesthood is organically ordered to and is at the service of the priesthood of all the baptised. Faithful priests confirm the deepest faith instincts of all the baptised and the faith of the people remind us priests why we are priests in the first place. Our vocation as priests is to help you be priests, prophets and kings.