A few years ago I had to go to our national seminary for a meeting, Maynooth. Before the meeting began I met three young men who were studying to be priests for our diocese and they invited me to stay on after the meeting for Evening Prayer and supper; so I did. In the evening I found myself in the chapel praying alongside 80 young men who were studying to be priests and it was wonderful to hear all these men singing to God and praying the Psalms together, knowing that they were dedicating their lives to serve God. At a time when it is not easy to be a priest it made me ask myself what on earth could draw them? The answer of course is God. The Spirit of God inspires people and moves people when we don’t expect it and often in ways we don’t expect either. But the Spirit doesn’t shout aloud like the news-papers do. The Spirit works quietly, but very powerfully.
I am often asked, especially by younger people, why I didn’t choose to get married and instead went on for the priesthood? Actually the way they usually put it is to say, ‘Did you not like girls?’ And I always say, ‘Of course I was drawn to get married, but the call of God was the stronger one.’ That is the only way I can explain it.
The year I began in the seminary was the year the first major scandal in our Church broke. The bishop of my own diocese, who lived just down the road from where I grew up, had fathered a child. That was 24 years ago and there have basically been scandals ever since and most of them much more serious. During my time in the seminary it was very disheartening with all the stories about child abuse in the papers for the first time, but it made all of us think carefully about why we were becoming priests and it still makes me think about why I continue as a priest. The reason more or less remains the same: I believe God called me and continues to call me to serve him in this way. Most of the time I’m not even sure I understand the calling or even what exactly the Lord wants me to do, but the ongoing call is unmistakable.
When I was nineteen I was invited to go to a prayer meeting in my hometown of Galway. At the time I wasn’t practicing my faith, but I was searching. At this prayer meeting I met 50 or 60 young people praying the rosary, singing hymns and reading Scripture. This was completely new to me and I was drawn to it. I could see that their faith was real and I was intrigued by it. These young people basically taught me how to pray and taught me that it was good to start the day by giving 10-15 minutes to God in prayer. So I began to do the same. Shortly after I began attending this prayer meeting they held what is known as a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar. This is a series of about 8 talks on the reality of the power of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—and how that same Spirit is just waiting for us to be open to him so that He can set fire to our faith, so to speak. So I began doing this seminar and was curious to know what, if anything, would happen. On the fifth night the people there prayed with each of us—just like the Apostles did—that we would receive a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. I remember being a bit disappointed at the time, because nothing particularly amazing seemed to happen to me. I felt peaceful, but not unduly so. However, in the days and weeks that followed I suddenly noticed all kinds of things happening. It was as though someone had flicked a switch and turned on the power. Suddenly my faith became alive in a way that it had never been before. The Scriptures began to speak to me in a profound way and I had a great desire to spend a lot more time in prayer. I also noticed that I began to hear the words of the mass as though I had never heard them before and I was completely blown away with it. Other people who did this Life in the Spirit seminar had similar experiences, the most common being that their faith became alive as never before. That was 27 years ago and the experience really changed the course of my life. A few years after that I began studying to be a priest.
Today when I look around and see some of the problems in our Church, I think back on what the Lord has led me through and I am reminded that our Church is in good hands, because it is not in the hands of human beings but in the hands of the Most High God. Those of us who try to serve in it are only instruments and often not very good instruments, but it doesn’t matter as God does not depend on us to get everything right. God is not asking us to succeed, only to be faithful.
As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the disciples’ faith was ‘switched on’, we turn once again to God’s Spirit and pray that He will help us never to lose heart, never to become discouraged, but to remember that God knows what He is doing. When we have the gift of the Spirit, which we have since our Baptism and Confirmation, we have everything. The guidance, wisdom and courage we need are there for the asking. It is for us to try and remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If we begin to rely only on our own expertise, our own ability, we will soon find that we come up short. If, on the other hand, we continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit, then we have nothing to fear, even though we may not know exactly what we are to do. God shows us what we need to do, as we need to know it. Most of the time we are not allowed to see very far ahead, but neither were the Apostles. They were just told to go and preach the Gospel, and that is what they did.
The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).