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VOCATIONS TO LAY MINISTRY - PERSPECTIVES FROM CANDIDATES IN DISCERNMENT

By Sean O’Leary, Director of Pastoral Development, Diocese of Ferns



Lay people are on the front lines of the Church’s mission, and it is primarily through their baptismal and sacramental foundation that the Church realises Christ’s mission and sanctifies the world. It is therefore critical to hear from lay people who walk the path of faith. In the Diocese of Ferns, thirty lay people (24 women and 6 men) of various ages were gathered in January 2024 to enter a six-month discernment period in preparation for a two-year part-time Diploma in Pastoral Ministry with St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. This discernment programme was devised by a Formation Team consisting of Bishop Ger Nash, Fr. Billy Swan, Sr. Stephanie O’Brien and myself, a married layman.


The programme consisted of monthly formation days/weekends with the candidates.

Two future options for volunteer leadership roles within the life of pastoral areas were offered to candidates (a) catechesis and (b) pastoral care. The six-month discernment period is akin to the propaedeutic year that candidates to the priesthood participate in prior to seminary formation or the novitiate period of religious orders. This preparatory programme serves to enkindle the foundations of the spiritual life and facilitate greater self-awareness through personal growth.


While approaching the end of their discernment programme, candidates were invited to read an article on vocations1 and reflect upon ways in which the text spoke to their experiences and submit one or two paragraphs in writing. These reflections were examined thematically and yielded three very strong overlapping themes: (1) Journeying with God, (2) Love and (3) Community & Service. In the following three sections, the paraphrased voices of the candidates themselves are offered without commentary.


JOURNEYING WITH GOD

“It makes sense that we stop … and reflect on what our purpose is. Everyone has a vocation but it takes the Spirit of God to show … us the way forward to build on our beliefs and joy” (Margaret). “I can see God has always been with me … He guided me towards freedom and slowly opened my eyes to clarity and wonder, to step out of the boat and follow Jesus … which has brought joy back into my life” (Muriel). “The Church is a very real, breathing organism … through exploring my possible vocation, my eyes are beginning to be opened … it feels a little frightening but all wonderful” (Lisa). “The choppy waters below me allow the fear and doubt to creep in, once more. How many times must I cry out ‘Lord, save me’, before I trust in Him?” (Eoghan).

“There are moments when that ache is drowned by awe, washed by wonder, replaced by peace … a peace that is not from me, … so I too can be part of that aching beauty … and share” (Peter). “It also stirred through aspects of my life, bringing up some shadows I didn’t

know were there, and through this process and the healing love & light of the Lord, I believe, I’ve been brought a step closer to the Light” (Kathy). “My journey with God is in its infancy and I am just learning to walk …I will become stronger as will my faith … we grow in what God has planned for us” (Sandra). “What struck me most was the idea of vocation as a journey, a life-long journey with various twists and turns … on this journey, I give praise and thanks to the Lord” (Helen K). “It’s an awakening that is both exhilarating and thought provoking at the same time. It’s an exciting journey with Jesus Christ bringing truth and freedom to one’s life” (Tricia).

“A certain humility is required … vocation means more than holding on to a membership card but being truly open to developing an inner knowledge and experience of the Gospel message” (Michael). “God gives us time to process, for our doubts and fears to be calmed. This enables us to put our trust in God and move forward … even if we are still not sure where we are going.” (Amanda). “The last few months has led me on a path of opening myself more fully to God’s presence and letting the Spirit lead me deeper … and awakening a deep desire to reach out beyond myself” (Maria). “I feel the call to step ever closer to the light … I don’t always feel able to answer, but somehow manage to do so! I am in awe of how the Holy Spirit works marvels in our lives” (Mary M). “I endeavour to forget my own self and know that whatever I do will be in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – because in them I trust and to them I willingly surrender” (Mairin).


LOVE

“Vocation is an invitation to love … the ability some people have to allow God’s love to work through them and reach other people” (Mary C). “His unceasing love helps me …I am grateful for the gift of discernment, being open to what God wants and letting go of what I want” (Helen D). “Fears and negativities need to be worked through to avoid stagnation and help discern one’s path. Love is the only energy that facilitates life, growth, inspiration, empowerment and acceptance” (Marian).

“Feeling at ease with the paradox of an uncertain future built on hope and love. A journey of wonder, and fear. Exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Wonder and awe, versus anxiety and fear. Growth versus stagnation” (Niav). “We have been offered a wonderful opportunity to help keep the faith alive … We are not alone or unaided as we discern whether to avail of this privilege. God’s love is always with us” (Theresa).

“I try to embrace .. the resurrection. Jesus enkindles an eternal light that makes our lives ever brighter and enables us to assist others to see that light and embrace the infinite love of God” (Liam). “I hope to continue to choose the right path as the greatest gift I can offer is to trust in God’s plan as we journey together from a loving base, acting justly and walking humbly” (Noreen).


COMMUNITY & SERVICE

“Vocation had been an ongoing process, a growing realisation that I have gifts to offer the Church, I have a deep wish to help others, to be present, to follow a path of goodness and live a good life” (Liz). “I feel very much part of a faithful group on the most gracious journey of my faith life where we work together for the greater good of our community and parishes” (Olga). “God has led me to this vocation and to this group of people. He is showing me how to begin to use my skills for His service and the service of His people with a shared sense of purpose” (Nickola).

“By embracing change and looking at new opportunities and experiences that enrich our lives, we may be able to enrich the lives of others … real listening lies at the heart of Christian living” (Denis). “The need to take time and courage to understand our gifts and weaknesses while also exploring how we are called to use these gifts to serve others, inspired by God’s love and always guided by the Spirit” (Mary M-C). “Have we created our own boundaries and shadows within our existing structures and practices? Are we afraid to engage in the culture – the world out there with all its beauty and unholiness?” (Neil).

“In recent months, I have realised the enormity of the mission ahead … and I pray that I will have the courage to continue saying yes, trust the process and step closer to the light” (Joanne O’K). “They have no message of hope in their lives. I feel that it is vitally important to bring the life-giving and hope-filled message of the Gospel to those who need it most and don’t realise it yet” (Treasa). “The lessening fear about what lies ahead; perhaps helped by safety in numbers, support for each other … and a picture of the future becoming more real are very reassuring” (Joanne V).


CONCLUDING REMARKS

Various interconnected threads emerge from the reflections of the lay candidates in discernment for lay ministry. These threads pull together the tapestry of a spiritual life: trust, purpose, transformation, surrender, openness, mission, courage and reliance on God’s guidance. Without any explicit reference to Church documents, these lay voices resonate strongly with the most important teaching of Vatican II, ‘the universal call to holiness’, which is very much about our lives of faith and relationships with each other and with God.

These lay voices tell us something important about how faith is transformed into one that burns more brightly in the encounter with each other and with God. Both individually and collectively, these short reflections offer us hope and encourages us to continue building formation, structures and processes that nurture possibilities, connections and relationships. Each person represented in this article bears witness to the experience of opening our hearts and minds more deeply to God in a synodal environment built on trust and where dialogue, formation, discovery and reflection are nurtured and affirmed.


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