My Priesthood – 40 Years of adventure.
As a Primary School child I lived in the very small world of the Irish Midlands in the late 1940’s and into the 50’s. There was no TV, I had very limited access to the family radio, and so it was up to ourselves to make our own entertainment. Football matches, fair-days, fishing, and the occasional cinema matinee on Sunday afternoon, (which sometimes replaced the more usual Sunday afternoon walk) where the usual sources of outside entertainment. However, as a Mass Server, I had access to a suprising, exotic and interesting world! I refer to the returned missionaries. We had many of them from the parish, and as a server we got off some school to serve their Masses, and generally were in no great hurry back to class. My mind was filled with their wonderous stories of a life very different from mine. I never lost this fascination, and I can say it was probably the sense of adventure more than anything else that eventually let me into the Seminary and the Priesthood. My reasons for staying in the Seminary, and indeed later on, for remaining in the Priesthood were quite different, but that was the start. These were men I respected, and they were living terrific lives. If only I could do the same!
Adventures not choosen.
The forty years which I have spent as a priest, have seen me in a variety of different situations and places, and by no means all of my own choosing – indeed as the time has passed, I have come to realise that we have little real choice about the way our life unfolds, despite making some basic decisions and choices. As mentioned above, my chief motivation in becoming a priest was to become a foreign missioner. Instead straight after ordination, I was to spend four memorable and happy years in Northern Ireland. This coincided with the beginning of “the Troubles”, and of course I found myself caught up in all the drama, horror and pain of what was happening, and which no one was controlling. All sorts of basic questions were raised for me about being a priest in such a situation. I left with great sadness after four years, with neither my questions nor the situation being resolved. I was especially sad to leave so many friends to whom the shared troubles seemed to have bound me more closely.
My move was to Nigeria – and there at first I was to continue as a priest-teacher. So much for going to where you wanted to go! At first I was very lonely and felt lost, then I realised ‘you have only yourself to blame – so get on with it! Gradually I settled in and began to love the people there and the new way of life. Over the years I lived in diffrent parts of that fascinating country, and engaged in a variety of works. Sometimes in a Parish, sometimes helping to train Lay-Catechists, who were the main life-blood of the parishes, also several years helping to form the young Nigerians who wished to join our Vincentian Community. In addition there always seemed to be some building going on. I loved the sense of freedom there, and the feeling that there was an opportunity to make a difference.
My next big change was after almost 20 years, being asked to return to Ireland. I was to spend the next eight years as a member of the Parish Mission Team. I was ready for the change, and really enjoyed the work. We were a team of priests, laypeople and sisters. It involved a lot of travelling, and a good deal of stress. I loved it, even though they were difficult years, because the Church in Ireland was already going through deep change or perhaps it was in decay. Numbers attending Church were dropping all over the country, but expecially in the cities and among the younger people. Parish Priests in inviting us sometimes seemed to think we would put everything right for them, and of course were duly disappointed when we didn’t.
Finally at the end of the year 2000, came my next big change, when I was asked to move from Ireland to Kiev, and help to coordinate the little group of Vincentians from Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia who were starting the Congregation in the territory of the former USSR – mainly in Ukraine, Belarus and the Ural Region of Russia. There were many new challenges to be faced, apart from the fact that the working language was Russian, and we were dealing with very differing Churches, cultures, and political situations in each place.
Never travelling alone.
In all these changes there were a number of constants. The first was that I was living and working in Community. This was terrific. Over the years I made deep friendships – those with whom I was living and working were not just colleagues, but life long friends. There was always a circle of people, not just the other priests, but also Sisters from different Congregations, and a circle of lay people. Of course there was loneliness and misunderstandings. Sometimes these were very difficult. Often I felt I lacked the immediate push to sort things out – which propbably would have been given me by a wife and family, and instead was tempted just to hide behind the work and pretend all was well. Ultimatly these issues had to be faced – and a priest is no different from anyone else in this regard. The issue of celibacy was faced many times at different points along the way – and generally settled in practical terms rather than with some theoretical nicety.
The real journey – is not moving from place to place.
All this changing from country to country and from one situation to another, was no more than the external context and shape of my life and being a priest. The geographical journeying is not the esssential thing for the missioner or priest. Many of our young Irish Back-packers get to see a lot more of the world before they are 25 years of age! The real adventure is a second, inner and more important journey. Many of the great saints have made this journey without ever leaving their monastery or convent. We are all called to make this inner journey, it is what it means to “follow me!”
The real adventure of the priesthood that I have known, is the experience of Christ using me, to carry out His healing, forgiving and saving work in the lives of others. I have known this reality in different situations and at different times but most often through the Eucharist and in the Sacrament of Reconcilliation. I have known it too when preaching. I can recall just a few weeks after being ordained, I was in Croke Park at a football match. At half-time an announcement was made asking for a priest to attend to someone who had collapsed. I went along, and was brought to the man who was lying on a rug in a quite corner beneath the Hogan Stand. He was conscious and recognised me as a priest, I ministered to him there, and stayed with him till he died. Later I contacted his wife and family, and the whole event left a lasting impression on me of the saving power of the Sacrament of Reconcilliation.
The Masses I have celebrated have also often been very real channells of the saving power of Christ. Masses in prisons, in hospitals, with people close to death, or the happiness of celebrating a marriage, or all the joy of First Holy Communion Day. More recently with people who deeply treasure the Mass, of which they were denied during the harsh years of communist rule in the Soviet Union. These are the real adventures of the priest, they are my adventures providing I do not hinder the Lord and continue to block his way with my sinfulness or with my own plans and schemes. As St. Paul said to the Galatians: “My real life is the faith I have in the Son of God“. (Gal. 2:20).
Essentially it involves a surrender and a letting go of the controls and the plans, of hopes and even of life itself – in order to find and follow the way which God wants for me. Sometimes, I more or less shut all this our of my thoughts, and just went with the flow of daily demands. But it can never be ignored for too long. It is composed – not by our own agend – but is the Way of Him in whose name I was called to live and work. Many times my plans were frimly put aside – sickness and time in hospital came along a couple of times; there were visits from armed robbers; there were financial worries, there were bereavements and family problems; and, a variety of other sudden changes – maybe, just things going wrong, another way of saying not going the way I wanted them to. These were defining moments, and are the real milestones along the path of my life. How well I coped in these situations, and the degree to which I allowed myself to be led rather than go on pretending to be incharge – this is my lifes adventure – because here I have, little by little, come to personally meet and know, then love and serve the Lord Jesus.
Being an Irish priest to-day.
The greatest part of my life as a priest has been lived outside of Ireland. But I remain Irish, and a part of the Irish Church. In this day and age, no matter where you live, communication is such that distance no longer seems to matter. I feel part of the Irish Church. It is a church which, on one hand has such great goodness and generosity, idealism,and hope, but on the other hand as we now know so well, where there was such horror, pain and gross evil. The graphic revelations of recent months and years, amid such hurt and anger, is a painful reality that touches us all.
We are well aware of the lives of the victims of such evil that have been scarred and ruined from childhood days. But I feel that it has also made victims of us Irish priests – and this hurts me and makes me feel helpless and angry. I often think that a priest – unlike other workers or professional perople, really only has his person as the instrument of his work. One might be a most unplesant character and yet be an excellent heart-surgeon. People would put up with a lot of rudeness, if they thought you could give them the treatement they required. But for the priest – who he is as a person, and, what he does go much more closely together. For the priest to do the work of Christ in the lives of others, he must be trusted as a person. My own person sinfulness makes it difficult for people to trust me, and so receive through me the forgiveness, healing and love of Christ. But now something of a different order has happened, can we say something systemic, and all priests have been blighted by it. For all Irish priests, this essential trust has been lost or terribly damaged.
Very possibly those who are guilty of such henious behaviour were themselves victims of some sort in their own childhood. Surely none set out on entering the seminary to end up doing such evil to others. Possibly instead of seeking treatement which they needed (was it available to them?), they thought the religious life or the priesthood would enable them to somehow undo the wrong which had been done to them.
An otherwise prefectly healthy person, but one, with a abses under a tooth, is almost totally incapacitated till the tooth is put right. No one likes to go to the dentist, but a time comes when it is necessary to admit ‘I need help – and am ready for whatever will be involved’. Only after the painful treatment is one ready to get on with life again. The Irish Church (all who comprise it) have come to the realisation ‘we need help – and have to make very major changes’. Hopefully they will prove to be ready to live through this painful process.