Vocations in Ireland – Moving Forward was the theme of the address given by Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry, to the recent conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors which took place in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare, from 9-11 June.

We include below the full text of Bishop McKeown’s address:


From the divine call of Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees to the Israelites to leave Egypt to the Spirit-driven move for the early church to leave Jerusalem and go to the ends of the earth, the People of God are always called to move forward into new and uncomfortable territory. A permanent Exodus lies in our DNA. God’s future always lies ahead of us and never behind us in the past. The Ireland in which I grew up was a place where priests ministered to catholic sheep, who were eating catholic grass in catholic fields. Priesthood was a vocation to an esteemed role in society. There was a cost to taking on that role – but there were also rewards. Seminarians tended to be cosseted – and even when priests reacted negatively to episcopal paternalism, they still tended to want a father figure rather than a brother. Relationships were hierarchical by definition.

Thus, much of the dip in vocations in Ireland is symptomatic, not just of our specific local realities, but of cultural changes across Europe and a resultant lack of clarity about the role of ordained ministry. Any change in the status of the church in a secularised society inevitably involves a major change in how ordained or consecrated life is viewed and lived out. Pope Francis – building on the teaching of his predecessors – has been leading the church into a post-Constantinian missionary mode. We are being asked to move from assuming that our role lay at the centre and going out to the peripheries. Maintenance can no longer the main part of a priest’s work – providing a wonderful service of sacraments and celebrations of the liminal moments of life. A church, which has a millennia-long tradition of caring for the sick and offering education to the poor, has an historical memory that is not forgetful of its weak times when it was strong by God’s grace. So the long story that we tell about ourselves in Ireland reminds us that the times have always been changing and that the worst of times often produced the best of saints, the toughest of times were holy blessed with graced heroism. And it is important that we develop a shared narrative about the past so that we can jointly discern God’s future. And that narrative about the past is very disputed.

But many feel they are beyond the Red Sea and unsure either how long God will lead us through the desert or where he is leading us. A culture that teaches us to expect instant gratification urges some to assume that the pain of the desert is wasted time and that we should get to the promised land by some shortcut. But they forget that the forty years the wilderness was later seen by prophetic voices as being the best of times.

On the other hand, sometimes we are tempted by the notion of a gilded past and frightened of the barren prospect that seems to stretch to the horizon. That is not an easy environment in which to promote a life-long vocation to ordained doing or consecrated being. Vocations promotion is thus, above all, an exercise in creating hope, of putting out into the deep, recognising the fear of being either caught in a storm or hauling in a netful of nothing and becoming the laughing stock of those who stand rooted to the shore.

So how does this situation express itself in Ireland now especially for those whose ministry includes the promotion of vocation to the ordained and consecrated life?

Firstly, we recognise that the cultural disorientation of Catholics is reflected in a number of tendencies. There are those who believe that a loosening of regulations and a less demanding form of church is the only way forward. They tend to propose an understanding of ministry that is flexible with celibacy, life-long commitment and a male-only priesthood. However, some of those who espouse female and married clergy leave themselves open to being accused of actually being numbered among the most conservative in the Irish church! What do they say that? I say it provocatively because many of them seem happy to advocate any course of action that will enable the little parish structure to go on as usual, perpetuating a model of church that was perfectly geared to a rural population that has access to neither transport nor modern means of communication.

Others regret the liturgical and theological changes that are blamed for the decline in church practice and membership. And they too have a similar attachment to the continuation of an old model. They tend to advocate the recreation of an older way of being church, often with no experience of how things were 50 years ago and no awareness of the dark side of that way of being church. An earlier generation were not already in the Promised Land but on their own Exodus journey.

An older generation of clergy and religious, who have memories of the youthful liberating enthusiasm which drew them, have less sympathy for a younger generation whom they see as seeking an exaggerated degree of certainty in necessarily uncertain times. And the younger people have a great enthusiasm for what is seen as a courageous prophetic voice in a secular society.

A somewhat fractured national church is guaranteed to have a vocations ministry that reflects those varying trends – and to find some of those adult tensions in houses of formation.

Secondly, what is happening in church is not exclusively an ecclesiastical phenomenon. Writing early in this new century in Novo Millennio Ineunte and in Ecclesia in Europa, Pope John Paul II was all too aware of the lack of hope which pervades much of our secular culture. Church may be facing problems – but it is a childish civic society that is blind to its own existential crises and delights in exposing church frailties. That civic fear is increasingly visible in the rise of isolationism among various political movements across Europe and elsewhere. Even though, as Pope Francis said, Christians build bridges, not walls, many traditionally Christian politicians seem attracted to pulling up the drawbridges.

That culture of fear is to be seen in the church as well. Some advocate a withdrawal behind high barriers in a culture where the church needs to have a prophetic voice, rather than one that goes with the current flow. We know that from as far back as the prophet Jeremiah that frightened political and religious leaders sought alliances based on fear rather than on discerning the uncomfortable wisdom of God.  And that hope-filled mission is precisely what Pope Francis is proclaiming in the face of a frightened culture. He recognises that the real enemy of church renewal and Christian witness lies, not in seeing the enemy as being outside and development of a Pharasaic or Essene-like emphasis on excessive purity but rather on seeing the enemy of mission as being inside our frightened hearts. We risk becoming people who would prefer to stay in the upper room in Jerusalem, talk about Jesus and quietly die out. We can act and react according to the whims of sociological pressures rather than learning from the scriptures how to handle times of crisis and stress.

As far as vocations are concerned, this fear means that the older generation who run our dioceses and seminaries can be depicted as the unfaithful stewards, authors of the current problems and thus not worth listening to. That makes life difficult for those discerning vocation. Houses of formation can become places where culture wars are fought out and even promoted. Some will proclaim that every student turned down or out by a seminary is just a good person, rejected for seminary merely because they are too orthodox, with no possible recognition given to the possibility that there may be other quite separate reasons. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis are not the only criteria for formation in the spirit of Pastores dabo vobis  or In Verbo tuo. This struggle also means that in this country – and probably elsewhere – young aspiring generous people can be exposed to both institutional formation and alternative unofficial formators, who take it up one themselves to either offer a rival form of preparation that will compensate for the perceived deficient structures in houses of formation or actively not encourage anyone to enter what they perceive as deficient seminaries and houses of formation.

Thirdly, in Ireland we are without two key elements of a healthy, structured vocations process, at least in terms of diocesan priesthood. We have no opportunity for candidates to follow a propaedeutic programme, akin to a period of postulancy. Because of the very wide range of backgrounds from which potential seminarians come, there is a need for at least some candidates to learn core elements of community, ecclesiastical and spiritual life before they have to wrestle with philosophy and formal study. Furthermore, the lack of an agreed national process for admission to seminary means that our very limited choice of seminaries are having to deal with a wide range of situations in the lives of students. Seminaries are houses of formation, nor primarily therapy centres.

Fourthly, people of faith live in an alien cultural environment where we are told to ‘Obey your thirst’ or that ‘life is a beautiful sport’ or that’ life is too short to say no’. It is clear that communities of like-minded people are necessary if we are to resist the storm and espouse the Beatitudes. After all, belonging is a core part of believing. Healthy Christ-centred development of individuals in parishes, organisations and houses of formation will take places only where there are people open to both diversity and discernment. That means developing an individual and communal heart that seeks neither to withdraw nor to fight but to engage. Community has great strengths but not all belonging is liberating. Fear- or anger-filled faith communities have little of the NT spirit.

Fifthly, can I suggest that the vocation call has to emphasise some key points which are Gospel centred?

  1. The call to follow Christ in a public ministerial way has to be promoted in terms of a call to missionary heroism and not to unevangelical separation. All ministry is at the service of the other and not just of me. That means presenting the radical and unreasonable nature of biblical calls to prepare candidates for engagement with the world. It will never be an easy role to play or path to follow. But, as in every generation, Jesus calls for heroic levels of dedication, because his official representatives will have to teach a message that some called ‘intolerable language’. They will have to be risk being thought to be out of their minds, just as Jesus was, even by his own family. They will need to expect that some will see getting rid of them as a service to society.
  2. It is a vocation to love the world that God loved so much that he sent his only Son. Jesus taught by word and deed that the world needs to be loved and healed through solidarity rather than condemned from afar for having lost its way. Vocation promotion will always invite people to dedicate their lives to the love of God and to the love of his people. Preoccupation with self is a barrier to any such ministry of love.
  3. The Year of Mercy has underlined how all work of the church is focused on dispensing the balm of mercy. All that Jesus did was to heal the world in all its broken relationships and shattered dreams. A call to share the compassion of Jesus to the hurting seems to be most in line with the new ecclesiology that necessarily arises from the missionary situation of the church in modern society.
  4. In a fragmenting world, we remember those words from the opening paragraph of Lumen Gentium about the Church as a sign or sacrament of union with God and of the unity of the whole human race. An ability to form mature committed Gospel relationships and to build Christian community is essential and not always easy to find in a world of broken relationships and frail role models. It how Christians love one another that will make Jesus credible in the world. There is no mature love of God without the ability to grow together with others in our love and service of that God.

These are difficult times for the Church in Ireland – and difficult times have been par for the course during the history of God’s people! The problems lie, not in the problems we face, but in how we learn how to witness in the midst of them. The OT and NT are full of stories of prophetic voices reinterpreting the story they told about the past and envisioning a new grace-filled future. We hear stories of courage in the face of persecution and enmity. And behind the hill of Calvary we know that Easter and the empty tomb lurk.

We are a people of faith, not of panic. We are a people of grace and not of anger. As the OT and NT writers could look back on the apparently blind wandering of the Israelites through the desert and see those as a kind of re-making and formation, so too we have to look at the current stresses and strains as the Lord dragging us away from a false certainty that came from structures and power and pointing us to the one who alone can save. These are graced times for us, because they are difficult! Those who are not afraid of letting the potter make and remake them will be those who reveal the love of God. God asks not that we be successful by our standards but faithful to his – and future generations will look back to those who became saints because of the desert and not despite it.