Spring can seem far off in these darkest days of our year. Yet at Christmas, the days are already imperceptibly growing longer and brighter.
In the life of the Church, in times like our own marked by dark shadows, there is also a new springtime imperceptibly under way. In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis repeated a remarkable statement by St Edith Stein. “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity,” she wrote, “step forth in the darkest night … [and] the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.” In other words, beneath the surface of history, it is those who strive for holiness who bring about real change and resolve the crises of time.
At the beginning of this new millennium, the same conviction inspired St John Paul II to call a new generation to live the holiness of their baptismal calling. In my Diocese of Shrewsbury, it is this same universal call to holiness that I have re-echoed for all generations as the pastoral focus for the year ahead.
I have been privileged to see in the lives of the young how, once they recognise this radical call to holiness, they also recognise the greatness of their own vocation – a discovery which can sometimes surprise them. In Shrewsbury, we have seen a springtime in men coming forward to discern and be ready to offer their lives to Christ in the priesthood. They come from remarkably diverse backgrounds and have walked very different paths which have often involved conversion or a re-discovery of the faith. It’s our experience that they desire what is authentic in the Catholic faith and a deepening life of prayer. And in this we are determined not to fail them.
A house for discernment, now firmly established at Shrewsbury Cathedral, has allowed men to find a small community where their discipleship can be lived in a family atmosphere, supported by a structured life of prayer. It is invariably this time in prayer which men come seeking; it is nourished by a deepening knowledge and familiarity with the Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the lives of the saints. In this way, the Cathedral now provides a much-needed place of transition for a new generation to recognise their calling and the possibility that God is calling them to the priesthood.
By contact with the vocations directors, or directly with the bishop, men have found their way to enter this time of discernment at different points of the year. In the New Year, via a dedicated website, we hope to make this opportunity better known.
Like many of the works of God, this house of discernment started with few resources and little idea of how things would work out. Previous experience of accompanying men toward the priesthood had convinced me of the essential elements to put in place. Yet, before doing so, the first foundation was a pilgrimage I undertook around the diocese, in which I was joined by clergy and people in intercessory prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The second step was the total entrustment of the project to Mary, the Mother of God. Above the Tabernacle in the house of discernment, there is now a small reredos which depicts Our Lady protecting the vocation of a priest through the course of his life from youth to old age. Two great priestly figures, St John Vianney and St John Paul II, flank the altar: heavenly intercessors for the men now coming to Shrewsbury.
If these men of a new generation have walked different roads toward the discovery of their vocation, they share something with those of us who, in previous generations, followed more conventional and perhaps less heroic paths. In every generation, a vocation to the priesthood is invariably born out of a deep faith and love for the Holy Eucharist. This should never surprise us, for as St John Paul II observed, the priesthood and the Eucharist were “born together”.
The greatest gift we have been able to offer the men coming to Shrewsbury is undoubtedly the opportunity to share prayerfully in daily Mass, and to spend generous time, morning and evening, before the Blessed Sacrament. In this way, they can discover what the Curé of Ars described as being the happiest moments we will spend on earth: the time spent in the presence of this great Sacrament. The Tabernacle stands not merely at the physical centre of this discernment community, it is the spiritual heart of the whole initiative.
In the light of the Eucharist, men are recognising their calling and the grace to respond to it. And in this small initiative in the quiet town of Shrewsbury we are glimpsing part of a springtime in the Catholic priesthood.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury
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