This Sunday, 25 April, is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. To Mark the day in the Archdiocese of Liverpool a 24 hour fast and prayer vigil for vocations will take place at the Carmelite Monastery, Upholland. The vigil which is open to the public begins at 5.00 pm on Saturday and continues until 5.00 pm on Sunday afternoon. There will be a Holy Hour at 7.00 pm on Saturday and Archbishop Patrick Kelly will lead a Holy Hour at 2.00 pm on Sunday, he will close the vigil by celebrating Mass at 4.00 pm.
One of the wonders of the priesthood is that you just never know who God is going to call, as Father Stephen Maloney, the Archdiocese Vocations Director, will testify. He says of the vigil: ‘when we fast we direct our hunger towards God and we will be praying for His guidance regarding vocations in the Church at this time’.
Father Stephen explais with that engaging Scouse aptitude for story-telling, one day he was working as a scaffolder on a building site, the next he was training for the priesthood!
On the World Day of Prayer for Vocations prayers are said for priests and bishops and others in parishes all over the Archdiocese, so there is no better time than this to look at the important issues of recruiting new priests.
The theme of the readings at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally the Good Shepherd, so it is a day when we pray particularly for pastors, bishops and priests, with the idea also of highlighting vocations and encouraging people to be aware of the need for prayer.
Says Father Stephen: ‘This is a time when we recognise that we who are baptised all have a vocation and we all respond to God’s will in our lives in particular ways. We all share our gifts and talents, most notably at Mass, and we all bring something to the table. For priests like myself, it is important to have this support through prayer from the parishes.’
Father Stephen was working as a 20-year-old scaffolder when he came off the building site one morning, and popped into his local church to find the priest talking about vocations to the priesthood.
He recalled: ‘I said to myself, oh no, that’s not for me, but, you know, it kept niggling at me, even though at first I didn’t think I was good enough to be a priest. It just shows that God calls all kinds of people if He called me! You just don’t know: He calls those he wants.’
Father Stephen, who is Parish Priest at All Saints, Anfield, Liverpool, is now the person men go to if they feel called to the priesthood. As Vocations Director, his responsibility is to promote vocations to the priesthood and support those called to serve.
This involves Prayer, and there are many parishes that have Holy Hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and there are individuals and parish groups that are using the Rosary prayer cards to pray for vocations, as well as organisations like Serra, who work and pray to promote vocations to the Priesthood.
Father Stephen says: ‘The positive example of our priests is also a great promotional tool and each one of them can be a promoter in vocations in their own families as well. We have been blessed in our lives to enjoy the fruits of the priesthood in so many ways and part of our faith journey is to encourage men to offer themselves is to serve God in this way so that those who come after us can continue to be blessed by the gift of priesthood in our families and in our parishes.’
If someone feels called to the priesthood, Fr Stephen encourages them to talk to their parish priest or perhaps a priest they know, and then make contact with him. They go on occasional discernment weekends, look at the ministry and what it means to be a priest and celibate. They spend a year or more thinking about it and praying.
The formal process involves a selection assessment weekend, usually at Ushaw College, Durham and then a Psychological Assessment. ‘This is not as daunting as it sounds as those who have been on it have found it a very valuable experience in their own journey of discernment priesthood and in their personal lives. They look at the qualities they can bring to the priestly ministry and to be better rounded people anyway. If all goes well, they see the Archbishop for formal acceptance and then go to a seminary for training.’
Men from all ages and backgrounds come forward, including young men of 21 and 22 and some over 50, so it’s never too late, smiles Fr Stephen.
The initial lengthy procedure is important to protect the candidate so they ‘don’t rush into it.’ They really have to be ready: it has to be a process of discernment. The main course at a seminary takes six years and it’s not just about the academic side: the seminarians learn about the spiritual side, pastoral work, and the practical aspect, working on placements in schools and prisons and so on.
Fr Stephen says: ‘There are no presumptions and you can’t just say what it takes to be a priest. All people are different and we have people from different backgrounds: some could be academic, others have hardly read a book in their lives, others are converts. We never know who God is going to call.’
He certainly doesn’t have any regrets. ‘It is a fantastic life’ he enthuses. ‘I regard it as a great privilege. You are invited into people’s lives: you baptise babies, marry people, officiate at funerals, care for the bereaved, become involved in the social life of the parish. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is: I love it. Priesthood is such a worthwhile vocation. Those who are ordained as priests will testify to the many joys and blessings they receive through the variety of ways that they exercise their life as a priest in the Church.
‘It is a very privileged way of life and you get to share the most important part of the lives of the people you are called to serve, sharing all their joys and sorrows. The day to day life of a priest is certainly not mundane. It is also a worthwhile vocation for the people we serve in our parishes and in other ways.’
Fr Stephen says: ‘We have people in training to be priests now and a few enquiries from people who are contemplating the priesthood in the future. There are people out there thinking about it and coming to meetings. We now have monthly meetings for people interested in vocations which include Mass and talks and discussions and prayer support for men and women who are thinking about vocation and religious life.’
He welcomes the Year for Priests called by Pope Benedict, explaining: ‘It is an opportunity for the Church to celebrate all that is good about the priesthood and the positive about the vocation. All we seem to hear about is abuse, which obviously is bad, but all priests are not like that, and we should celebrate the good, and all that they do for the Church.’
There are currently eight men from the Archdiocese in training to be priests and the next to be ordained will be in two years’ time.
One of them is Liam Collister, 26, from Anfield, Liverpool, who is training at Ushaw College and currently on placement at St Margaret Mary, Knotty Ash: his home parish is All Saints, Anfield, but for the past 10 years he has attended St Matthews in Queens Drive because, as a skilled musician and singer, he was asked to set up a music group there.
Liam, who went to All Saints School, De La Salle, Croxteth, and St Francis Xavier, Woolton, before entering full-time employment as a care assistant in a care home, says there was ‘always something at the back of my mind’ about being a priest since he was a young boy, and after a year at the care home he started attending vocation days at Lowe House, where he met other lads thinking along the same lines.
He studied theology at Liverpool Hope University, then went to Edge Hill College to study nursing, where he felt the ‘final push’ about becoming a priest, and got in touch with Father Stephen, who encouraged him to go to seminary. He spent a year at a seminary in Vallalodid in Spain before going to Ushaw and hopes to be ordained in 2012.
He values the support of his family: Dad Keith, a senior lab technician at St Benedict’s College in Garston, and Mum Kathy, and sisters Claire and Kerri. He says: ‘My family are happy at my decision. I am the youngest and the only lad, but Dad has always said it was my life and has supported me all the way.’
As for the future, he says: ‘I decided when I was working at the care home that I wanted to care for people in all ways, as a priest. In one sense, the prospect is daunting, but also exciting. And I’ve made brilliant friends at Ushaw. There have been ups and downs, but I’m still there.’
In his message for the 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Benedict says that priestly vocations are born of contact with priests, as ‘a sort of precious legacy handed down by word, example and a whole way of life.’
He adds: ‘Every priest, every consecrated person, faithful to his or her vocation, radiates the joy of serving Christ and draws all Christians to respond to the universal call to holiness.’
As for the future of the Liverpool Archdiocese, Father Stephen says: ‘We are a church of hope and we trust the Lord to provide what we need, and we live in joyful hope.’
Anyone who thinks they may have a vocation to the priesthood should speak to their Parish Priest or get in touch with Fr Stephen on 0151 287 8787. There is also information on the websites www.liverpoolpriestvocations.co.uk or the national office for vocations www.ukvocation.org