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Time to be more positive about the joys of priesthood

Preaching at a friend’s silver jubilee, Fr Frank Dougan found himself counting the blessings of his vocation

A while ago a friend asked me to preach at the Mass to celebrate his 25th anniversary of ordination. Suitably flattered, I agreed straight away, but the nearer the day came the more I realised I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. The only instruction he gave me was not to canonise him. That was the easy part!

I knew that the congregation there would be made up of ­people from his past and present and that they would reflect the variety of things he had done in his ministry and the variety of ways he had touched different people’s lives.

But I wasn’t there to thank him on their behalf. They were big and ugly enough to do that for themselves. So what was I there to give thanks for? The more I thought about, it the more I reflected on the fact that, as priests, we receive far more than we can ever give back. And so the theme of my homily was for the priest to thank God firstly for what He had done for him. Sounds obvious doesn’t it?

And yet, how many times do you look at your priests and feel sorry for them? It has become a standard thing to say: “I know you’re busy but…” There is an impression that the priesthood is a trial, a hardship, that we are all exhausted and stretched and simply running ourselves into the ground. Parishioners can see their priest having to do so many things and wish it wasn’t so hard for him.

How about we change the way we talk about that? How about we stop saying the priest has to do so many things and start realising that the priest gets to do so many things? What I’m trying to say is that the variety of things we are able to do because of the gift of our vocation and the grace of ordination is basically ­brilliant.

We get to ­celebrate Mass with and for our ­congregation, making Christ present in Word and Sacrament; we get to welcome your children into the family of the Church through the Sacrament of ­Baptism; we get to give you the healing that God offers through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We get to do so much on Christ’s behalf through the Sacraments.

And not just that: you trust us to help you celebrate the funeral of a loved one; you welcome us into your homes with a natural warmth; we get to minister to the sick in hospital; we are ­welcomed into schools and get to involve ourselves in the great work done in our Catholic ­primaries and secondaries.

And that’s me just getting started, but there isn’t room for an exhaustive account. The bottom line is, it’s a cracking vocation.

Do we make sacrifices? Yes, we do. But so do married couples, parents, carers, nurses, teachers. Priests don’t have the monopoly on sacrifice.

Is it hard at times? Yes, it is. There are times when this would have been a much harder article to write, when things get me down and life is a struggle. But you have it hard at times as well: life can be struggle for you. And like you, we get through the ­difficult times with God’s help.

We all have to be conscious of how we speak of the priesthood, because that is part of creating an environment in which God can call someone.

Young people (and the not-so-young) have so many competing opinions and ideas and priorities that it can be hard for the voice of God to cut through and for them to recognise it. And, when that does happen, how generously will they respond if the priesthood is not seen as a life worth living? We need to talk it up, because it’s worth talking up.

When I was thinking about this, I was thinking of how many priests I know that love their vocation. I had one in mind and he is the most contented man I know, and I think it comes down to three simple things: he loves God; he loves the Church; and he loves folk. Not a bad formula.

One of the personal graces I receive is to travel to Lourdes each year as chaplain with a Hosanna House and Children’s Pilgrimage Trust (HCPT) group, taking children with special needs or from socially difficult backgrounds.

I get to witness an environment of love and care for those children from the helpers who take them out, and it leaves me humbled. I’m the priest, so they do all the work! I just sit back and watch a consistent and ­profound example of Christ’s love put into action.

Being inspired by the good in others is just another example of the joy that comes from the priesthood.

That silver jubilee of ­priesthood I mentioned was a great celebration. The music was great and the responses belted out (the preacher was pretty much average). The Church was packed with people there to be with their priest and show their deep love for him.

So often, as priests, we know we are loved (and if you think yours doesn’t know it, how about you tell him?). Again and again, if we reflect on it, we ­discover that we receive so much more than we can ever return, both from God and from the people of God.

So, go on: talk it up. But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t me ­saying priests are great (although you all know some outstanding ones). I am saying the priesthood is great. And we get to do so much.

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