Br Donal OFM shares his thoughts with us on the crucially important subject of Religious Vocations. Let us consider how best we can nurture future vocations in our homes, parish and schools.
As many of you may be aware, I was asked to come here after many years in Scotland, with the specific ministry to the community and friary here, as well as assisting as a Friar-priest in the parish for Mass and confessions. As you know, we are a large Franciscan community with many occasional visiting Friars coming for study, rest and meetings. Our community feels the effects of illness and age, so an important area for us as Friars is to encourage new men to think about our way of life and possibly take ‘the risk’ of seriously considering joining us.
With this in mind, I was also asked when here, to add onto a few ministries, that of Vocations Director for the Franciscans in England and Scotland, co-operating very strongly with the Director in Ireland, of which we are now a dependent Custody of the Order.
This particular service in the Franciscan Order is a very important one. We do wish and believe that there is a present and future life for Religious Orders in the Church. The Franciscan Order has been present for over 800 years and spread throughout the world, in most countries and continents, made up of three main branches of Friars - Friars Minor, Friars Capuchin and Friars Conventual - and countless female Franciscan Sisters: enclosed (Poor Clares) and active apostolic Sisters exercising various ministries.
There are in the Franciscan Order, numerous lay men and women who follow St Francis not in religious community but in their daily secular lives by prayer, charitable works and monthly spiritual meetings.So, overall, the Franciscan Order, male and female, religious and secular, makes up a healthy number of Franciscans. However, numbers have fallen in the western world, including Britain and Ireland. That is why there is an urgency to encourage by prayer and awareness such a religious call, based on our baptismal call to be Christ-like people alongside the many vocations of married and single persons, especially in the caring professions.
We are all involved therefore, in living out our vocation in daily life. As Catholics, we have a need to foster among us the summons of God who calls some to a religious vocation as a priest and/or member of a Religious community. This encouragement comes out especially in the family home, parish, school, in particular groups of prayer and in Church service.
It is difficult to know exactly how God may call a person. St Francis’ call was dramatic after illness, through the influence of the San Damiano crucifix. St Paul’s conversion was similar. For most Religious and/or priests, this certainly was not the case. For myself, I came from an Irish Catholic family who prayed the rosary together, went to Sunday (and occasional weekday) Mass and Catholic primary school. My father became ill and was off work for a year and we as a family had to do without certain ‘extras’. The local assistant priest was very committed to the youth in the parish, and my brother and I were involved in the parish Catholic youth club. This priest bought us two anoraks during the year my father was ill as we were going camping as a club.
I was 13 years old, ‘fell in love at the youth club!’ and began thinking of this priest’s way of life and work. We were also committed altar servers, not just at Sunday Masses but but also at the weekday convent Masses. These thoughts continued on and off over many years and we had visits to the parish by missionaries and Religious. The pangs of wanting to do something for God and others began developing very slowly and I thought of a missionary vocation.
Towards the end of schooling I had a long period of a health matter that could only be resolved by a major operation. This meant that I was at home when I was only 20 rather than away at college or a career. I took a few jobs, one of which was in a hospital for a year. I experienced people who were obviously very ill and dying. I began seriously thinking that I wanted to be a carer but also to help people spiritually too.
I felt the call to serve God, the Church and people as a missionary priest and applied to a missionary congregation and left home for the formation community, aged 22 years. I studied in London for two years and was happy and wanted this vocation. However, an attraction grew out of my spiritual reading, doubts, too, whether I had a call to go to Africa and a desire for a ‘mixed life of contemplative and active’ found either in a monastic or mendicant Friar's life.
I began, with the permission of the missionary congregation, to look at some other religious orders such as the Franciscans, and met a few other Friars such as Fr Brian McGrath at Chilworth. In 1976, aged 24 years, I entered the novitiate, professed the following year, began theological studies and formation, solemn profession in 1982 and ordination in March 1983.
So my vocation was not as dramatic as St Paul’s or St Francis’, but one which, over time, was based on desiring, rejuvenating, doubting. For most Religious and priests this calling is a discernment supported by prayer and reflection, in dialogue with a spiritual director as well as a vocations director. As the Franciscan vocations director for Britain, I receive many enquiries from men aged 18 to 40 years, who voice an interest in the Friars' Minor life. Some continue this discernment over a lengthy period of several months and years. For those unsuited to this particular vocation there will be a frank discernment and decision as to what is best for all concerned.
Our religious Formation is made together with the Franciscan Friars of Ireland. Our enquirers, having made a lengthy and thorough application, assessment and interview, and once accepted, proceed to the postulancy programme and novitiate currently in Ireland for a two year period, followed by several years of ongoing formation at home or abroad. Such formation may take some seven years (or even eight for those called to the ordained Brotherhood).
I said earlier, that my early growth as a candidate developed mostly at home in the family, and from this, other ways of encouraging come about though other areas of life, including a parish. All of us, Friars, Religious, Priests, and especially the adult laymen and women in the parishes, are called to be vocations animators in our homes, parishes, schools. Every day we ought to be praying for a religious vocation, among our own, here in this locality.
In our homes, parishes and schools, a prayer should be said daily and out loud on Sundays at Mass in the bidding prayers for vocations to the religious life and priesthood. If we see a particular young man or woman among us who may be a spiritually and active Catholic in our parish and school, why not ask if they have ever thought of a religious calling? We need to encourage and foster this possibility.
The Irish vocations director has asked all Franciscan friary communities (16) to offer him a prospective candidate from each friary per year! I say and ask the same to our Franciscan communities and parishes in Britain.
Why not seriously consider the reality that there may be an active parishioner (single, 18-40 years, male or female), who may be considering a religious vocation. Why not approach them, to ask, encourage, and support this need? Let us animate religious vocations!