Faith Matters

The call to follow Jesus closely

Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor will issue a pastoral letter on priesthood at today's Chrism Mass in St Peter's Cathedral, Belfast. Faith matters takes a closer look at To Follow Jesus Closely

Bishop Noel Trainor, pictured at an earlier celebration of Chrism Mass in St Peter's Cathedral, today publishes a pastoral letter encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Picture by Declan Roughan

THE pastoral letter, To Follow Jesus Closely, is one of a number of initiatives of Northern Ireland's largest Catholic diocese to support vocational accompaniment for young people.

It is hoped it will help promote an increase in vocations to priesthood and religious life.

In the letter, Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor reflects on the role of the priest in contemporary society.

He encourages committed Catholics to build a culture of "vocational discernment" which enables young people to respond to their calling "with open minds and big hearts".

The Bishop acknowledges that there are fewer priests and religious and a decline in the numbers presenting to study for ministry.

He remains "confident that Jesus continues to call men and women to follow him closely".

Citing the Gospel story of the Rich Young Man, Bishop Treanor describes it as "one of the most challenging Bible stories".

He notes how the young man "is unable, perhaps unwilling, to accept Jesus' challenge to dig deep and give more of himself".

Drawing parallels with culture today, he reflects that "unhappiness caused by lack of fulfilment is becoming an all-too-common experience".

The Bishop acknowledges that there are fewer priests and religious and a decline in the numbers presenting to study for ministry. He remains "confident that Jesus continues to call men and women to follow him closely"

For many young people, "the most important thing in life is 'to do your own thing', 'to be true to yourself'."

For the Bishop, "we discover our true selves, and therefore happiness, not by doing what we want, but by following Jesus closely".

He continues: "The call to follow Jesus is the call to be your true self, fully human and alive to the world."

Bishop Treanor understands the reluctance of parents "to encourage their children to consider priesthood or religious life".

He says "they fear for them a life of isolation and loneliness".

He responds that "Jesus did not call his disciples to follow him in order to isolate them from family and friends, but to welcome them into his new family".

A priest is called to "live in communion with Jesus and his brother priests".

The Bishop explains: "The priest in touch with Jesus offers, by his own example, a way of life which is convincing, humanly and spiritually possible, and attractive."

Crucially, a "good priest" is called to form "authentic relationships" with parishioners and be "committed to service and teamwork".

Priests and people "build a community of faith which recognises and welcomes those who are suffering, the hungry and thirsty, strangers and the naked, those who are sick, imprisoned or unfairly treated in any way".

For Paula McKeown, Director of Living Church, this 'co-responsible' model of priesthood and Church is "essential for our parishes to be vibrant communities of faith where people encounter Jesus in every aspect of their lives".

Mrs McKeown says that the people of the diocese "are committed to service and mission", describing them as "can-do Catholics" who have "a genuine love for their priests and a readiness to support them through thick and thin".

For Paula McKeown, Director of Living Church, this 'co-responsible' model of priesthood and Church is "essential for our parishes to be vibrant communities of faith where people encounter Jesus in every aspect of their lives" 

Bishop Treanor is realistic about the demands made of priests today and acknowledges that it is "a challenging time to be a priest".

He continues: "For some, the responsibilities of priesthood weigh heavily, and can at times overwhelm."

To those experiencing "stress and exhaustion" or difficulties of any kind, the Bishop encourages them to "ask for and receive the support they need".

He explains: "The man who allows himself to be touched, comforted and sustained by God's saving love comes to realise that in spite of human frailty, Jesus remains close to him and walks with him always."

Echoing Pope Francis, Bishop Treanor reflects that "to be a priest is always something beautiful, capable of fulfilling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties".

He continues: "Priests share highs and lows with their parish family, and are privileged to be involved in the most personal, moving and significant milestones of life. Therefore priests are not to be pitied, on the contrary, they are to be loved, supported, encouraged, and if needs be, challenged."

Welcoming the Bishop's letter, Fr Kevin McGuckien, Director of Vocations for Down and Connor, described it as "a timely contribution to the ongoing conversation on priesthood and vocational discernment".

Fr McGuckien noted how the letter reflects the themes of the Synod on Youth held last year.

At that international gathering in Rome, Pope Francis encouraged all of us "to support young people as they listen, discern and live Jesus' call".

That is why Fr McGuckien, together with a working group of priests and laypeople, has developed an accompaniment programme for men considering priesthood.

It provides regular opportunities for prayer, reflection and mutual support.

"It is hoped these supports will assist them in their vocational discernment as they continue with work or study, so as to better prepare them to make the decision to enter seminary," said Fr McGuckien.

The Bishop's letter is the first in a series of events to be held in Down and Connor to promote vocations to priesthood and religious life.

Prayer vigils will take place in parishes and pastoral communities throughout the diocese on Thursday May 2.

A special nine-day novena will be launched at these vigils, inviting individuals and families to pray for an increase in vocations.

This will lead into Good Shepherd Sunday which "is to be a joyful celebration of thanksgiving for the gift of priesthood and religious life".

Bishop Treanor encourages schools "to explore creative ways for integrating time and space within the school day for vocational discernment".

He asks that assemblies and class prayer time be dedicated to praying for this intention.

He also invites "every priest in the diocese to visit their local schools to share with young people their vocation story".

Fr Dominic McGrattan, a member of the vocations working group, welcomes the invitation.

He believes that "our children should be encouraged to dream God-sized dreams".

He agrees with Bishop Treanor that "now, perhaps more than ever, young people need spiritual guides who reassure them that life does make sense, that there is a God who loves them, and that in the end, all will be well."

Most important for the Bishop is that "a love for priesthood and religious life... be nurtured in the home, within all our faithful families".

He argues that "we must speak positively of vocation in our homes, as well as our places of work, study and recreation. We must share with our loved ones stories of how priests and religious have helped us grow in our relationship with Jesus and each other".

Bishop Treanor concludes with a heartfelt plea to all those who feel they may be called to priesthood "to listen, be open-minded and big-hearted".

"Be brave, dig deep and give more of yourself. To say 'yes' to Jesus, to follow him closely, is a lifetime's adventure which leads all the way to heaven," he says.

Bishop Noel Treanor's pastoral letter will be distributed throughout the Diocese of Down and Connor at Easter Masses. More information on vocations to priesthood at www.vocationsdownandconnor.org

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