During the past few weeks several groups of priests from our deaneries have visited St Joseph's, Wrightington to hear about the vision for the new Vicariate for Clergy in Active Ministry which has opened there, and to view the premises and facilities at their disposal.
The first and most obvious question about this new facility is, just what is it for? The mission statement of the Vicariate explains that it exists for the following purposes: "To celebrate what is good and holy and joyful and positive about being a priest in Liverpool Archdiocese. We aim to encourage and inspire priests, so that they may continue to support, encourage and inspire others, enjoying their vocation and ministry. We wish to support and care for priests and to further enable priests to support one another as brothers in the sacred ministry."
The Vicariate aims to provide pastoral care, ongoing formation opportunities in the form of retreats and in-service training, and a place where priests can come if they wish to stay somewhere overnight, or for a few days' rest, a week's holiday, or time for reflection, study and prayer.
Father Philip Gregory, as episcopal vicar for clergy in active ministry, is the man given responsibility for the overall pastoral support of the presbyterate in Liverpool Archdiocese. He exercises a ministry of care and advocacy for individual priests who may have a particular need. He is also parish priest of St Joseph's, Wrightington.
Another question is, what sort of pastoral needs might priests have? Well, the same needs as anyone else. Priests face personal challenges of various kinds. For example: a priest may be trying to balance looking after an elderly parent or other relative with his ministerial duties. A priest may be suffering bereavement due to the death of a loved one. A priest may be overworked, which may be causing an unacceptable level of stress. A priest may become ill and have to take some time off work. These are only some of the issues that priests may have to face.
A familiar question these days is, who cares for the carers? As carers, priests themselves need to be cared for. Many parishioners, family members and friends give great support to their priests, but hopefully the newly established Vicariate for Clergy can supply a further level of structured support, so that our priests can continue their ministry of care for parishioners and others whom they serve.
It is important to mention there are other agencies in the Archdiocese involved in the care of clergy. Canon Steve Maloney is the episcopal vicar for sick and retired clergy. Canon Chris Fallon has responsibility for the permanent diaconate, including the formation of those candidates in training for this ministry. Father Colin Fealey supports those who have been ordained less than ten years. Father James Preston, as vocations director, looks after our seminarians and those discerning a vocation.
Discussing his new role, Father Philip said: "In July 2016, at the shrine of Our Lady in Lourdes, I was asked by Archbishop Malcolm if I'd be prepared to take on a new appointment, that of episcopal vicar for clergy in active ministry. After some reflection and prayer, I felt able to say 'yes'."
He was offered the role after several priests suggested his name to the Archbishop when asked who would be suitable. As for the choice of Wrightington, it was selected because it is a rural parish, which is not overlooked and offers the peace and space required. Its proximity to the M6 and other major roads means it has good communications with the rest of the Archdiocese also.
It was in January 2017 that the decision was taken for this new 'House for Clergy' to be based at St Joseph's Church in Wrightington. The location is near Wigan, not far from the site of Upholland Seminary, and incidentally it is the Shrine of St John Rigby. After some modifications to the presbytery, Father Philip was able to move in last September.
In addition to Father Philip, in October 2017 Archbishop Malcolm McMahon appointed Father Andrew Unsworth to the post of coordinator for ongoing priestly formation. Father Andrew will be responsible for organising spiritual retreats and in-service opportunities for priests, and will be available as a catechetical resource for priests. This recognises that priests have spiritual and training needs like everybody else.
The Vicariate seeks to give every priest in active ministry chances for prayer, study and reflection. Some priests will be assisted in organising sabbaticals and the Vicariate can suggest spiritual directors and other professionals who can support the spiritual, intellectual and human development of our priests. Much of this builds on the good work done previously by Father John McLoughlin.
The main parts of this year's programme have already been put in place. There will be a retreat for priests in May led by John Wilson, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, and an in-service training conference in October led by Father John Armitage, rector of the shrine at Walsingham.
On 6 July, at the invitation of Archbishop Malcolm, there will be a gathering of clergy at LACE in 'Celebration of Priesthood' to acknowledge those who will mark a significant jubilee of ordination during 2018. Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham will be our guest homilist at this event. Many other events are currently in preparation, some at the suggestion of the priests themselves.
Although their roles are distinct from one another, both Father Philip and Father Andrew will be responsible for welcoming and looking after guest priests. They will be tasked with managing the 'House for Clergy' and the provision of accommodation – making available the guest rooms in the presbytery and the cottage adjacent to the presbytery, which can be used as a 'let' for Liverpool priests who want to use it for short-stay self-catering breaks.
To carry out the work of the Vicariate and the parish, an administrator and a housekeeper have also been appointed to work at St Joseph's. Ultimately, the team will work together in assisting Archbishop Malcolm in his care and support of the clergy.
Father Philip wants to dispel any idea that the work of the Vicariate is for priests with 'problems'. The human and material resources available to priests through the work of the Vicariate are there to ensure as much as possible that 'problems' do not arise, and when an individual priest has a particular human or spiritual need, that this is met in a positive and supportive way.
Father Philip and Father Andrew have been greatly encouraged by the response they have so far received from priests who have viewed the facilities at Wrightington, and by those who have already used the accommodation available in the house and the cottage. They are enthusiastic about the service to our priests that the Vicariate will make possible, and both are grateful to the Archbishop and the trustees for making this happen.
Father Philip says: "It was wonderful to receive such positive feedback from the priests who have already visited us. We look forward to the future when, please God, more priests will take time to use the facilities at St Joseph's."
The motto of the Vicariate for Clergy is: "Father, I put my trust in you." Let us actively support our priests through our prayers for them.