– Horeswood Parish Church, Wexford
Billy, for the past number of years you have been travelling towards priesthood. You have been in a time of preparation – a time of prayer, study, and reflection – a time when you thought a lot about your vocation and chose it again and again.
You will not have reached this decision alone, many people will have contributed to this moment, your parents Liam and Ann, your family, your friends and neighbours in Ballykelly and Horeswood, mentors and colleagues in Maynooth, priests whose presence and ministry attracted you to priesthood.
All these people are part of today, and will be part of your priesthood from this day on.
Now the moment of priesthood has arrived, the moment you have been preparing for, and your life will now change from moving towards priesthood to living it out.
You will have questions today: where will this journey take me? How will I cope with the challenges I meet along the way? What will it feel like twenty years down the road? Is this what I want to do with the gift of my life?
Nobody can answer these questions, that’s why a vocation is such an adventure. There are no guarantees. The American author Helen Keller, who was born deaf and blind, said, “life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.”
In these days becoming a priest in Ireland can truly be described as an adventure! At times you will feel the appreciation people have for your presence and ministry. At other times you will feel the anger/hostility people have for the church in general directed at you.
Some years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. In that book Bonhoffer said that “when God calls a man, he calls him to come and die.” In Bonhoeffer’s case this proved prophetically accurate because his opposition to Nazi rule cost him his life.
But there are many ways of dying, the physical one being the most obvious.
When we choose in life, whatever that choice may be, we die to other possibilities. This is the cost of discipleship. In Bonhoeffer’s case it was demanded in one dramatic act of heroic self-giving.
For most of us it won’t be like that, it will take the form of what the Dutch writer Van Breeman calls “the heroism of the ordinary.”
This doesn’t seem like a big deal. It doesn’t demand putting your life on the line. And yet it can be the biggest challenge we will ever face. The heroism of the ordinary, the strength to face every day, the routine, the repetition, believing that what you do is meaningful for others.
This is where the heroism of the ordinary becomes very real. We tend to think of the Kingdom coming in apocalyptic events. Often the Kingdom is made present in little ways, in the words of Patrick Kavanagh, “in the bits and pieces of life.”
The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut says that the job of the artist is to “make people appreciate being alive, at least a little bit.” I think that’s the job of the priest as well, to make people appreciate being alive, at least a little bit, ‘I have come so that they may have life…..’ (Jn. 10-10)
This takes a special kind of courage and plenty of staying power. Anybody can do it for a time, but to do it all the days of your life demands great strength of character and generosity of spirit.
Priesthood is a lot about delivery, how we interact with people. As we sometimes say this is where the magic happens – or doesn’t, as the case may be.
I was listening to South East Radio during the week and they were reading out a list of employers looking for people to fill various positions. Again and again the same qualities were mentioned. The successful candidate must be enthusiastic, have good customer skills, and an ability to work on his or her own. If these qualities are demanded in retail surely the Gospel deserves as much? Surely the People of God have a right to expect that level of service too? It echoes the old business advice: “if you don’t like people, don’t open a shop.”
I think it is equally true to say if you don’t like people, don’t become a priest because priesthood, especially diocesan priesthood, is all about people.
There is a lot of concern in Church circles these days about the future. This is understandable given the volume of criticism and negativity directed at the Church over recent times.
Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. At Pentecost we talk about the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit – the things the Holy Spirit gave to the disciples.
I think we need to remember what the Spirit took from the disciples in the upper room as well – He took away completely their fear and anxiety about the future. In these Pentecost days we need to cast off our fears too, we are not the first generation of Christians to worry and wonder about the future! In every age people have written the obituary of the Church and our age is no exception.
I am reading a book at the moment called The Persistence of Religion. Religion has an amazing ability to persist. In a recent piece for The Irish Times Father Brendan Hoban put it like this:
“the religious instinct is so deeply ingrained in human nature it is never likely to disappear, even when it’s derided and suppressed. And particularly so in societies such as Ireland, steeped for centuries in religious vocabulary, emblems and iconography, what the writer John McGahern memorably described as “part of the very weather of our lives.”
An article on religion in Ireland in the current issue of The Economist magazine concurs with this when it concludes that despite everything that has happened in Ireland in recent times Irish people still have a “feeling that life’s biggest moments should have some sacred dimension, however it might be expressed.”
Billy, this will be the backdrop to your ministry, a rapidly changing Ireland where faith is cherished and challenged in equal measure.
As you go forward from this day into your future as a priest always remember – not only have you chosen, you have been chosen too!
Priesthood is often described as a ‘gift’. Forty seven years ago I was given that gift. Today Billy, in the presence of your family and friends, I happily give that gift to you!
· Bishop Denis Brenan is Bishop of Ferns. This ordination will take place at 3.00pm today, Sunday 11 June, in Horeswood Parish Church, Wexford in the Diocese of Ferns.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678