The recent controversy over priestly formation at St Patrick’s College Maynooth has put into question how the priests of the future will be formed.
But before they can be formed, men have to be called.
Where will religious vocations to the priesthood and religious life come from?
In a significant recent address at the closure of Mater Dei Institute in Dublin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said vocations to the priesthood in the future would spring up from within ‘mature lay faith communities’.
“The training of future priests belongs closer to the faith communities which they will serve and which will continue to nourish them along their path,” he said.
People perhaps thought he was referring to parishes when he spoke of “mature faith communities” but in fact what he indicates is actually happening already in the new ecclesial movements and communities where people are introduced to the person of Jesus and journey together.
The Céili Community founded by Irish priest Monsignor Pat Lynch and based in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, serves the new evangelisation.
Made up of 10 core members – priests, religious and lay people – and a wider group of around fifty ‘Cairde Ceílí’, their mission is evangelisation and their tool – parish missions.
Since the Céili Community began in 2000, several men have felt a call to priesthood. Its founder, Msgr Pat Lynch says in the last eight years alone, about six men have felt a call to become priests through the community and one woman has entered religious life.
Céili works for evangelisation. Over a period of a year, a whole team will work with a parish – meeting the key movers – parish priests, pastoral council and all those involved in ministry of any kind before spending time in the parish running the mission.
Monsignor Pat Lynch christened the community from the name ‘Céilí Dé’ – the Community of God, a name given to early followers of St Patrick. It has the canonical status of a ‘Public Association of Christ’s Faithful’.
Vocations have to be “nurtured” says Msgr Lynch. With that in mind, last year, they ran a year-long ‘pre-postulancy’ programme for three men, aged in their 20s and 30s. The men took part in the Community’s formation, prayer, catechesis and missionary outreach.
In June 2016, one man became a seminarian with Southwark diocese in the UK, another joined the Dominicans and the third went back to teaching.
Msgr Lynch believes mixed communities like his own are “more rounded”. They bring their challenges but “it is healthier”, he says.
“I know there are remarkable same-sex faith communities out there of priests, brothers and sisters but if we are in the light of Vatican II there will be [new] faith communities developing because you cannot have a new theology based on Vatican II and the praxis of Vatican I, the two will rub up against one another.”
Although he is a diocesan priest, Msgr Lynch has lived all his priestly life in community.
“It is so nice in the evening to come back in and you have people to talk to. I know it’s terribly human but I think it’s a recipe for healthiness and I think it also stops us wandering away and becoming prey to all sorts of things. If you go home to an empty house, you could just turn to a bottle.”
The Céili Community has also given birth to a female religious vocation. Some years ago, in her early thirties, Catherine O’Halloran joined the community. “I thought I was called to be a lay missionary but living in the community, the Lord revealed to me a call to religious life,” she says.
She studied with the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ near Amarillo, Texas and after three years, now known as Sister Enda Maria, returned to Ireland.
In September 2014, Sister Enda Maria became the first Céilí Community nun complete with a special green habit. “It is wonderful, it is a real blessing to be in a collaborative community sharing with priests and laity,” she says.
Are others following this new way?
“A number of girls are interested but they have to see it lived out. A number feel called to religious life, but I don’t know if it will be this one,” she says with humility.
Undoubtedly vocations can spring up from anywhere through the grace of God. “By a miracle you can have priests or sisters springing up from nowhere but it would be the exception,” says Msgr Lynch. “I think the rule is that they find a home and are bred within the faith community.”
The fact that so many young people today come from difficult backgrounds is a great challenge. “I think the biggest thing young people need is time, says Msgr Lynch.
“They need the security to grow up within a faith community and a little bit of guidance and if they are coming from a dysfunctional background, they need solidity of tenure. You give them lived security and maybe what they should have got from mothers and fathers and didn’t get.”
The Emmanuel Community
Fr Conleth Meehan and Fr Paul Glennon, two priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin, discovered their vocations to priesthood in the Emmanuel Community.
This community made up of people of all vocations – single, priests, families, seminarians and consecrated lay people – lives a radical call based on Eucharistic adoration, compassion and evangelisation. In Ireland about 25 adults make up the community and 14 children, with an outreach to another 100 or so friends.
Groups of members form maisonée (households) and live a strong spirit of fraternal life, even though they don’t live together. Once a week they meet, either in person or via Skype, to pray together and share their faith. Individually they try to do adoration and go to daily mass, and they have a community weekend once a month where they do street evangelisation outside the oratory at the Square in Tallaght.
There a group sings Gospel songs, while others gently approach members of the public, inviting them to light a candle in the chapel and write a prayer intention.
One of its priests, Fr Conleth Meehan, began his working life as a butcher in Dungannon. He went to Mass, but didn’t relate to the person of Jesus. Something was missing. In March 2001 a group came to give a mission in his parish. Their joy was a challenge to his own lukewarm faith, he said. Why were they so happy?
On St Patrick’s night, he broke with his tradition of drowning the shamrock in the local and instead went to a ‘Mercy Evening’ and adoration. “I felt touched by the love of the Lord.” He realised the joy of the mission team, whom he later discovered to be the Emmanuel Community, sprang from the fact that they had put Jesus at the centre of their lives.
With a new faith, he began to do adoration and attended an international seminar in France organised by the group. Within a year, he was taking part in missions himself in Belfast and Limerick, and experiencing a new call. “Through the missions, I received my vocation to the priesthood,” he says.
In 2010, Conleth was ordained for the Dublin diocese and now serves as chaplain in Kilmacud.
Fr Paul Glennon was ordained in June 2015.
Originally from Dunmore in Co Galway, the former mechanical engineer picked up a flyer for the Emmanuel Community at an event in All Hallows and ended up spending a year at their School of Mission following World Youth Day in 2005.
“My call to priesthood came during the school,” he says. The chaplain at the school asked Paul if he had ever considered priesthood. ‘Not really’ was my answer.”
At Pentecost that year, together with the others, they prayed for each other “for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit”. “One of the words received by the group for me was ‘Do this in memory of me.’ (Lk:22:19). I didn’t think about it much but then later one of the girls reminded me and said ‘Didn’t you think that could have been a call to the priesthood?’ Then it struck me deeply.”
In 2009 he entered Maynooth for the Dublin diocese. He chose Dublin as it was “more central for the life of the community” feeling a strong call – the community and priesthood together.
His six years in Maynooth were happy ones. “I don’t recognise the place being spoken about in the headlines. There might have been stuff going on but I didn’t see it. The guys in my class and other classes were great guys. I was edified by them,” he says.
Fr Paul is part of an Emmanuel Community household made up of two families (with children), Fr Conleth, two single women and a single man. They meet in Dublin in one of the family’s homes each week. Those who can’t be there physically Skype in.
“I feel very blessed by the meetings,” says Fr Paul. “When the evening comes around, sometimes you just feel like sitting down and relaxing and you think: ‘I could do better things than drive for three quarters of an hour [to the meeting]’ but you know it is your call.”
He feels a brother with the others, not ‘Father’. In the household the group share their faith, telling each other what the Lord has been doing over the last while in their lives and praying together. “You experience the presence of God through the prayer. Often I’m touched by the faith sharing coming from the others as well.”
We journey quicker when we journey together, says Fr Paul. “It is easier to hear the call in the first place, surrounded by vibrant, active passionate Catholics and it’s much easier to be able to journey with the Lord in the Scriptures, in the sacraments with others. When you are surrounded by people who build their lives on the foundation of faith, it gets you going.”
Fr Paul serves as a curate in Skerries parish. His parish priest, Fr Richard Hyland, understanding of his “call within a call” is supportive of his connection with Emmanuel giving him the freedom to participate in their gatherings.
Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick felt the stirrings of his vocation through contact with a number of groups – Christian Life Communities, L’Arche and notably, Focolare which ultimately became his spiritual home.
At college he was part of a team organising the visit of Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche Community to Ireland. The words of the Canadian affected him deeply.
“I remember he said ‘We spend our lives carrying around suitcases of our problems, worries and at a certain point we have to let them down and be free’. I understood that to mean ‘to be free to follow the Lord’. It had an impact.”
Ultimately he met the Focolare, a movement trying to bring about with others, the fulfillment of Jesus prayer: May they all be one.
“The fact of journeying to God together really struck me profoundly. I realised here was a way to live the spiritual life with others which I needed if I was to go forward and become a priest. It wasn’t something I could do with a heroic life choice on my part, I had to live it with other Christians.”
He maintains the link with Focolare to this day, sharing a life of communion not just with priests but with lay people, young and old, and families. “Being part of a community linked by, in this case, the spirituality of unity, enables me to live an experience of Church, which then becomes a springboard to go out and be open to all other experiences in the life of the Church.”
“It is also a great leveller!” he adds.
Since its arrival in Ireland, thousands of young people have come to a deep Christian faith through Youth 2000 – the ecclesial movement where young people evangelise other young people.
The movement is based around prayer, Eucharistic adoration and evangelisation. Former National Leader, Sean Ascough, says at a certain point they “lost count” of the number of vocations to priesthood and religious life.
“You could safely say that there are over 100 people who have gone on for religious life, including female religious life, who were involved.”
Dominican Fr Conor McDonough is one of the men who found his vocation in contact with the group. Aged 17, he got involved with Youth 2000 when he went to his first retreat.
The Galway man went to study first physics and then theology in Cambridge and there took part in retreats and a local Y2K prayer meeting.
“Priesthood was always in the background but Y2K brought it out.
“At Youth 2000 festivals, especially, I encountered an innocent exuberance which was simply better and longer-lasting than any ‘buzz’ offered by other parties or festivals.
“Aside from the overall ambience, I had wonderful conversations at Youth 2000 events which showed me that the work that God was doing in my life was being done also in the lives of others. I was no longer a lonely disciple,” he wrote in a column for The Irish Catholic.
Brother Conor believes that men will not be able to follow vocations to the priesthood unless they are taught to be disciples and this is what happens in Youth 2000.
“Then you can hear the voice of the Lord calling you to something more radical.” In the group, young people see role models – people trying to follow Christ in this “messy complicated world”.
As the call to priesthood or religious life is profoundly counter cultural, young people need its formation to help them.
Brother Conor was ordained on July 9, 2016, one of eight Dominicans priests ordained that day.
He says around half of them have been fostered through Youth 2000. Although part of a Dominican community, he still keeps a connection with the group, taking part in retreats when he can. His two siblings, Fergal and Damian, were also involved in Youth 2000 but are now married. “It is a huge support to them in their married life too.”
The Neocatechumenal Way described by Saint Pope John Paul II as “an itinerary of Catholic Formation, valid for our society and for our times” has given birth to hundreds of vocations around the world.
People generally hear about the community through an open invitation to a series of meetings to deepen their understanding of faith. This is followed by a day of retreat. Communities meet weekly for the Word, and for the Eucharist on Saturday night.
There are communities in Ireland in Cork, Killarney, Belfast, Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry.
Every year the Way sends entire families accompanied by their priests into the world as missionaries.
In March 2016, Pope Francis sent 250 families from the Neocatechumenal Way on mission to evangelise the five continents.
The Missio ad Gentes involves groups of four to five families and their children, accompanied by a priest, seminarian, a religious sister and a catechist, settting off to a particular diocese at the invitation of the local bishop.
Although the Neocatechumenal Way has been present in Ireland for 36 years, this year for the first time one of the ‘missions’ was bound for Ireland, to the diocese of Limerick.
The movement has its own seminary – the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary House of Formation in Dundalk founded by Cardinal Seán Brady in 2012.
This seminary forms priests who are both diocesan and missionary. “Our vocations come from the Neocatechumenal Way and will be ordained as priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh,” says its website.
The ordained priests are incardinated in the Archdiocese of Armagh and serve in its parishes, but they may be also made available at the discretion of the Archbishop, to serve as missionaries with the Way.
“This form of evangelisation starts from the Body of Christ, the Christian community,” Claudio Bandini, a leader of the community in Ireland explains.
“Families, children, the priest and seminarian form a community and give a witness of faith to reach the people around them.”
Unlike in a regular parish, the catechesis does not start with the sacraments, but with the word of God through which a person begins to see their life through the eyes of faith.
The sacraments come later.