Saint Patricks's College, Maynooth
As the news of twenty new seminarians entering Ireland's national seminary was revealed today, I decided to write an open letter to the bishops of Ireland on the matter. The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Irish Dominican province.
The fact that twenty men have entered the seminary in Maynooth this past weekend is a reason for rejoicing. The men who have presented themselves as candidates to test their vocation are brave. They are the product of their faith communities, parishes and families. Most of all they are the product of prayer of the very many Irish Catholics who fervently pray for vocations on a regular basis. Without their prayer, you can be certain that there would be fewer vocations. I mentioned the bravery of these men. It is difficult to contemplate a vocation to priesthood in Ireland today. I am sure that you share the concerns of these new seminarians. They enter their further discernment in what has become known as post-Catholic Ireland. Stepping up courageously as they do is now a very counter cultural act. They withstand many forces from the world in which they live, but also they find little to help them in their decision from within the church - a church that has put vocation to priesthood and religious life at the lower end of the Catholic agenda. As bishops with primary responsibility for creating the often quoted 'culture of vocations', you are I am sure aware that the joy of accepting these twenty new seminarians will be greeted with shock and disappointment too. Twenty seminarians for Ireland's almost four million Catholics in no cause for rejoicing.
In 2009, you courageously supported and promoted the 'Year of Vocation'. The original concept to have the year to pray for and support priestly and religious vocations soon became a Year of Vocation for all types of vocation. The year quickly lost focus as the church decided to include the valuable vocation to marriage and single life and others. To me, it appeared that there was a fear in promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life - we dare not offend anyone! A great opportunity was lost. Why are you afraid of singling out the joy of vocation to priesthood? It is notable too that many dioceses have put a lot of time, effort and resources in promoting the permanent diaconate. This is laudable, but those same dioceses seem to have little to say about priesthood and it's value as a vocation.
Much is written about the 'vocations crisis' as you know. Many people have a view on how best to solve it. Personally, I don't like the term because I don't believe that it exists. When we say there is a crisis we are suggesting that somehow God has stopped calling his people to be religious and priests. This, of course, is patently untrue. God has never stopped calling. Perhaps we have stopped listening. In exercising your ministry, you are called to be the first person to witness to priesthood and the sacredness of that vocation. In many years of observing how you carry out this mission, I have become very disheartened at your efforts. With some notable exceptions, it is rare to find a bishop speak about vocations in a positive and authentic way - as a means of planting the seed in the minds of the young and not so young that they too could be called to serve God as priests, brothers, nuns and sisters. What's even more discouraging is the fact that when some bishops do take the opportunity to speak about vocations - their words can have a very negative impact and create uncertainty in the minds of potential candidates.
Most of you appoint vocation directors. I have huge respect for these men. They have a very difficult task. In most cases they are already over worked parish priests or curates. Having the vocations portfolio added to their brief can cause a considerable strain. Are they adequately supported in their ministry as vocation directors? Does the diocese give the necessary financial, material, human and spiritual support to these men? Have any of the bishops given consideration to appointing priests as full-time vocation directors or at the minimum making sure that vocation promotion is a primary ministry for a nominated priest in a diocese? This does not seem to be the case in Ireland. There is much evidence to suggest that appointing a vocations director full-time can have significant positive results in terms of stimulating interest and translating into recruiting potential candidates.
Many people that I meet in vocations ministry often express the fact that while they might like to become priests (or religious), they find it difficult to find priests and religious who radiate joy because of their calling to follow the Lord. You know that it is often said that one important reason for potential candidates who consider this call is the joy and happiness of a religious or priest that they already know. As bishops, you will be aware no doubt, that many who consider a vocation today can often be confused when they encounter organisations and associations of Catholic priests and religious who appear to portray negative images of vocation to priesthood and religious life - and where there is a distinct lack of joy in their vocation. Can you help these men and women who would like to commit themselves to the Lord by encouraging existing priests and religious under your care to make a supreme effort to welcome the young and not so young candidates - and give them an understanding the richness of your vocation?
Living in the fast paced digital age gives bishops and dioceses a real opportunity to engage in a creative and imaginative way with potential recruits. I travel the length and breadth of Ireland as a vocations promoter. I call into many rural and urban churches throughout the island. With some exceptions, I rarely find a reference to 'vocations' in church porches or bulletin boards. Very few dioceses have a vocational presence on the internet and fewer still are engaged in social media. Any young man or woman today will use these tools as a first port of call to find out information about vocation. My question to you is why you use these essential tools so rarely, if at all. In my experience, over ninety per cent of new enquirers come through this medium. You and I together are missing out on a whole cohort of potential vocations by neglecting these opportunities. The internet and social media are a cheap and cost effective way of promoting vocations and indeed preaching. While on the topic of preaching, why do we only hear from you on the topic of vocations around Vocations Sunday each year?
In my opening remarks I mentioned prayer for vocations and the many people who do this as a daily task. You and I should be on our knees thanking God for them. On the topic of prayer, we have a direct command from the Lord himself to 'pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to His harvest'. Why is it that we do not take this seriously in Ireland. I do not wish to be presumptuous in suggesting that you do not - but all the evidence is to the contrary. I rarely hear of prayer events for vocations - or indeed a simple prayer added at the Sunday eucharist asking God to intervene and prompting men and women to consider His call? You and I know that a concerted and coordinated effort at this task of praying will bear fruit - but we have to do it first!
We look to our bishops for leadership in all matters of faith. You have so much to deal with on a daily basis as you set about encouraging the faith communities in your dioceses. You have many administrative and sacramental tasks. You have to care for your priests, religious and people. You also have a duty to foster and encourage vocations to priesthood and religious life - and we desperately need you to show leadership on this issue now more than ever. The future of the church in Ireland depends on you. I ask for your support in this most important of tasks. More than that, I encourage you to give consideration to having a 'vocation' assembly where all who are interested and concerned with the ongoing lack of vocations to priesthood and religious life can give their opinion and input to you. Working together, we can make a difference.
Gerard Dunne OP