Around this time of year bishops would normally be preparing to make new parish appointments, the annual diocesan changes. The reason ‘the changes’ happened at this time of year was simple. Whatever vacancies might have occurred could now be filled because there were new priests, who had been recently ordained, waiting for appointments. Some of us remember a time when there were more newly ordained priests than vacancies. When that happened some of the newly ordained men would go to another diocese, usually in England or Scotland, where they might spend some years before a vacancy arose at home.
Those days are long gone. We have had only one ordination for the diocese of Kilmore in the past 13 years and just one student in the seminary. Happily we now have the services of a number of overseas priests as well as some retired missionaries to boost our numbers. Still, as I contemplate the situation my successor will face in ten years time, I have to confess it looks bleak enough. Unless there is a dramatic change in the vocations trend, we will then have less than 30 priests, perhaps about 25, for our 34 parishes.
However, it will be far from as bleak as the situation that Archbishop Oliver Plunkett faced, when he returned to Ireland in 1670 as the newly appointed Archbishop of Armagh. He had spent more than 15 years working as a priest in Rome after his ordination because of the severe persecution of priests in Ireland under the Penal Laws. When he finally returned, it was still far from safe to minister openly as a bishop or priest. At first he travelled the country in disguise, but later he was able to carry out his ministry publicly because of the appointment of a new viceroy who was more sympathetic and tolerant.
The situation the new Archbishop faced was that most dioceses hadn’t had a bishop for a generation or more. He was the only bishop in the whole province of Armagh, which then had 11 dioceses. There were only a handful of churches because church building had been outlawed. There were very few priests and they were demoralised and divided into different factions. In a few short years Archbishop Oliver managed to bring back a spirit of harmony and peace among the clergy. He was able to report in a letter to Rome: “I found serious divisions in them, but by the grace of God, all is now quiet in the dioceses I have visited.”
Persecution returned in 1673, but the Archbishop continued to minister to his people, once again in disguise. He worked and travelled tirelessly, did thousands of Confirmations and ordained hundreds of priests. However, as we know, he was eventually arrested, sent to London for trial on trumped up charges, and martyred at Tyburn in 1681.
Archbishop, now Saint, Oliver Plunkett was a true shepherd who cared for his flock and not for himself. He was the kind of shepherd the prophet Ezechiel describes in our first reading. He followed literally the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as we see it in the Gospel. He laid down his life for his sheep. He is an inspiring example for every follower of Christ, but especially for bishops and priests who are entrusted with the task of pastoral ministry today.
The Church in Ireland in our times faces a crisis of vocations to the priesthood and religious life which is rooted in a deeper crisis of faith. We have to acknowledge that part of the reason for this is the sins and failures of Church people themselves which have caused great scandal and undermined the faith of many. Another reason is surely the challenge of life-long priestly celibacy in a culture that is unsympathetic to chastity and short on long-term commitments.
However, I believe another important reason is the hostility to the Church that is now a settled part of our society’s culture. People from abroad are often astonished at the antipathy to the Church displayed in our country. The Church here is not subject to the kind of persecution that it experienced in the 17th century during Saint Oliver’s ministry, nor as it is in many other parts of the world today. But I don’t think you have to be paranoid to believe that there is a kind of persecution of the Church taking place here all the same. It is not physical persecution but it is no less real for that. It is more subtle. It takes the form of gradual exclusion of Church people or activities from the public space. There is denigration of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on radio, television and on social and other media. There is often a focus on bad news about the Church to the almost total exclusion of any good news.
In this kind of situation it would almost be a surprise that anyone would want to consider devoting their lives to being a priest or religious. It would take real courage, deep faith and strong conviction to offer oneself as a candidate for the priesthood or religious life in a culture as hostile to faith as ours.
As we venerate the relics of Saint Oliver Plunkett today we ask his intercession for the Church in Ireland and for the Church here in the diocese of Kilmore. We pray that many young people, and perhaps not so young, may experience God’s call to priesthood or religious life. We pray that the example of Saint Oliver will inspire those who do experience God’s call to respond to it with faith, courage and generosity.
Finally, we pray for a renewal of faith and hope in all our people and that the faith of our fathers and mothers will continue to live and flourish in the future as it has in the past.
“Faith of our fathers living still, we will be true to thee till death”. Amen.