A couple of years ago I was talking to a priest colleague who works in a parish near Belfast. He had been called out to a house where a local person had died by suicide in tragic circumstances. There was already a crowd at the house. He described vividly how he walked up towards the door and the crowd divided to let him through. In their silence, he heard the unspoken message, "We need you to do something, say something in the midst of this awful situation." And he felt so inadequate to the task in hand.
From that I learnt two things.
Firstly, in so many tragic events there is still a huge hunger for people who will speak of meaning, hope and healing in the midst of terrible pain. We all saw from Bishop Edward Daly's funeral that very many people – church-goers and others – appreciate the work and witness of those who seek to minister with integrity.
Just because fewer people go to church does not mean that they don't have deep needs which cannot be satisfied by retail therapy or a party.
Why am I so sure of that? Viktor Frankl was a Jewish doctor who survived a number of years in Nazi captivity. He became convinced that the deepest human need was to believe that my life is valuable, significant, worth living in all its imperfections. There is still a role for Church when it is focused on offering meaning and healing.
The second thing that I learned from the experience of my priest colleague is that priestly ministry is very difficult. Many people still have huge expectations of what a priest should be able to do. But the bible is clear that being a minister at the beck and call of Jesus Christ was never an easy path to tread. Now it is very challenging.
As the early apostles found out, it takes huge reserves of energy and grace to build communities, to promote reconciliation and to support people on their faith journeys.
Is there any hope for the future of vocations to the priestly and religious life?
Despite the societal pressures to 'look after number one', I know that there are many young people who want to do something beautiful, something heroic with their lives.
Pope Francis – speaking on July 30th to 2.5 million young people in Krakow – said Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God's love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy... God's love invites you bring the Good News, making of your own lives a gift to him and to others. This means being courageous, this means being free!
The world needs people of great goodness who will be wonderful parents, teachers, administrators, workers, job creators and so on. But the world is also blessed by those who will speak of transcendent hope, community and healing for the broken hearts – and will be able to carry people's burdens when tragedy asks profound questions of us.
And after 39 years of priestly ministry in Northern Ireland, I am still very enthusiastic about the mission of sharing God's love. And I still believe that God calls people to minister that love in his name.
And if anyone wants to talk about this, they can contact me through the diocesan offices at the Cathedral – or on Facebook. The harvest is great, but the labourers are few!
Published in the Derry Journal 30th September 2016