Homily of Bishop Denis Nulty for Mass celebrating the national pilgrimage to Knock of Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society
We gather as family here at Knock. We gather as part of the family of Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society on their annual pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Shrine. Maybe we gather as family on a day trip, a few days in the West driving the Wild Atlantic Way, we have climbed the Reek and now we are visiting Knock.
In sixty days’ time the World Meeting of Families opens simultaneously in every one of our twenty-six dioceses; in 61 days’ time the World Meeting of Families Congress commences in the RDS; in 64 days’ time Pope Francis begins his visit to Ireland for the World Meeting and in 65 days’ time he will arrive here in Knock to ask Our Lady to bless the World Meeting.
Like Pope Francis we also travel to Knock with our own intentions, petitions, requests. Sometimes we carry the prayers of others, unable to travel – a candle is lit; a prayer is recited; a Mass is requested. Sometimes that prayer is one of thanksgiving – a favour granted, a petition answered. The State exams finished yesterday – Italian, Japanese and Technology examined in the morning; Religious Education and Applied Maths in the afternoon.
We have a lot to pray for - exam results; a good diagnosis from a biopsy, a satisfactory outcome in a family dispute. Gathering as the Saint Joseph’s Young Priest’s Society that intention might be that more young men might respond to the call of Jesus into the priesthood. And that they would be supported in discerning that call by family and friends. It is wonderful to welcome the many altar servers who gather from all over Ireland for today’s pilgrimage. The Mass we offer this afternoon in this splendidly restored basilica is through the intercession of Mary, Health of the Sick. We turn to the Lord to ask His grace, His love and His mercy as we now call to mind our sins …
Homily of Bishop Nulty
My mother’s maiden name was Balfe. Her parents and many of her siblings are buried in the beautiful Ballapousta Cemetery, close to Ardee in County Louth. Also buried in that cemetery is the founder of Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society, Olivia Mary Taaffe, her husband John and their only son George Robert. After her marriage in 1867 she lived in the nearby Smarmore Castle for 27 years, before moving to Dublin where a year later in 1895 she would form the Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society. She always had a deep devotion to Saint Joseph.
Originally as the song says she was “a Galway girl” growing up in Ballyglunin. They had one son George Robert and they promised that if they had a son he would be a Jesuit priest. It is said that before she ever accepted the proposal to marry she suggested John and herself would both complete a Novena to Saint Joseph. Well the only son born, George Robert, contracted tuberculosis and while he was sent to the Jesuits in Clongowes Wood College SJ to study, he died a few years after completing his study in his early 1920s. Today there is statue to Saint Joseph in Clongowes to the memory of George Robert Taaffe.
Returning to my mother who was Nan Balfe, before she married my dad Den, her mother’s maiden name was Taaffe. I don’t think there is any connection to our friend Olivia Mary, but the coincidence is interesting. On 12th June, just past, I was 30 years a priest. Ordained the day Ray Houghton scored the goal beating England in Stuttgart! I have no doubt my vocation was formed and nourished as we as family prayed, growing up on a farm in County Meath. Like most homes of its time and generation, my father signed the cheques and my mother said the prayers. He too had deep faith, but she lit the candles. She had great devotion to Saint Joseph, mind you Saint Martin de Porres got a good airing also! We never missed Mass on a Sunday and we were never late; my father made sure of that. He was first in the car hooting the horn as we battled not to be the one last in, left sitting in the middle of the front, between the pair of them balancing awkwardly on top of the handbrake. They were the days before health and safety!
We have come to Knock this day, just over two months ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. The Holy Father will come as a pilgrim, like all of us. He will pray for family life, for the strengthening of the family unit. I think in Ireland we risk seeing the upcoming World Meeting through an Irish prism and only through that lens. This is going to be a world event where family life whether it’s in Dublin, Dubai, Detroit, Dakar or Darwin, Pope Francis has something to say to all families. It is in the family that a vocation to the priesthood or religious life is nourished and formed. But it takes much more than a family, it takes a whole parish and many more to nurture a vocation. And that is why the Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society and their quiet prayer apostolate through local branches is essential. I think of the branches in Kildare & Leighlin in Naas, Tinryland and Graignamanagh to mention but a few of our nine diocesan branches.
Ireland has culturally changed hugely in recent decades, seismically in the past couple of years. A young man who shows the promise of a vocation needs more encouragement than ever. Parents will understandably worry about loneliness; friends will have legitimate concerns around celibacy, relationships, life. Discerning a vocation is now firmly counter cultural. No longer is it simply a matter of leaving it to a seminary, there has to be proper accompaniment every step of the way. It begins in every diocese, leading to a propaedeutic experience, a time to settle into the element that is formation. The accompaniment needs to balance the academic with the pastoral: we all want to save the world, but we need to know why the world needs salvation and how we present that message of salvation!
In Ireland, we who love our faith, need to have the courage to create a new culture of vocations. Father Thomas Richter in his book Helping Priests Become Inviters reminds us the main reason many young people do not consider the priesthood is because they have never been personally asked. He estimates that 80% of those ordained were personally invited to enter seminary by a priest; he suggests only 30% of priests invite young men to consider the priesthood. And that is in the United States. I would say it is a lot less in Ireland and today, 2018, two months before a Papal visit, that need was never greater.
So how do we encourage priests and lay people to encourage vocations? Begin a conversation at parish level. Priestly vocations are everyone’s business, but if priests, deacons, parish pastoral workers, parish council members do not lead the conversation, then who will? Archbishop Charles Chaput asked one time at a Diocesan Conference: “How many of you know the name of Mother Teresa’s Parish Priest when she was a child?” What was his point? Mother Teresa didn’t become Mother Teresa (and later Saint Teresa) by herself. She had someone who preached the Word of God to her. None of us know who we are influencing, who we are prompting to drill deeper into God’s word, and the profound affect that preaching will have on our world.
The Church is no longer the dominant force it once was in Irish life and that is a good thing. A priest today works collaboratively with lay women and men, young and old at the coalface of parish life. Jesus speaks to His mother in John’s gospel, it is an intimate moment: “Woman, this is your son”. Today we have come on pilgrimage to Knock to speak to His mother and ask her to bless us with more vocations, but equally to look after our younger priests, and support them as they settle into ministry. Your society is aptly called Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society. I thank you for the enormous support you continue to give our seminarian community, but I also ask you to keep in your prayers the accompaniment of our younger priests in our parishes and communities, who need our support and encouragement as much as those in seminary formation.
A letter I received recently at Bishop’s House in Carlow emphasised for me how much the local priest, who will soon move parish, is both loved and treasured. I quote briefly from the letter: “He is one of us. He is, yes, a priest, but he is part of our family. His role may be religious, but he, as a person, is blood to us.” What a powerful endorsement of priesthood, written by a thirty-four-year-old parishioner, and food for thought for all of us.