It is always with some trepidation that any member of the clergy opens up about their own vocation story. The spiritual life is after all a life that is hidden in Christ and therefore it is not easy to express or articulate. Every vocation begins in the interior silence of the heart where God speaks. That said, every Christian receives the fundamental call to evangelise, to speak of how the Spirit of God is alive and active in our lives.
My vocation began as I believe all vocations do with family prayer. My mother would lead the family rosary and she belonged to a little prayer group that would sometimes meet in the family home. I remember being lulled to sleep by the sound of them praying the rosary in the living room as I lay in bed. I had a little altar in my room in which I had a small statue of the sacred heart and a crucifix and I would kneel and pray for a short period of time most days. As I child I struggled to understand why Jesus died on the cross and from time to time I imagined mounting a valiant rescue attempt to save him. At the young age of nine, I felt that I had mapped out my future life: I was going to be a priest when I grew up even though I really didn’t know what that entailed other than the fact that he was a person who prayed, who celebrated mass and heard confessions.
In my teens I still felt the call to be a priest and was sometimes mockingly called Fr Malachy by other students after telling them that I wanted to be a priest. In sixth-form as the time came closer to choose where my life was headed, I was aware that other people were planning careers, I knew priesthood wasn’t a career it was something different. Deep down I had come to realise that priesthood is not something a man chooses for himself, it is something he is called to do by God and by His Church. With that realisation feelings of unworthiness began to emerge. I felt as though I couldn’t possibly be called by God that perhaps it was my desire and not his. The whole notion of discernment was foreign to me and I didn’t know how to go about resolving this dilemma. I decided to put off the whole notion of priesthood for a while.
I decided the best thing to do was pursue a degree and find out if the call persisted and that’s what I did. I finished my studies at Ulster University and the desire to move towards priesthood was still there, honestly I never really expected it to leave. I really had to gather my courage and make the call to the vocations director of the diocese to request a meeting. It is very daunting for a young man to approach a diocese or religious order and speak about a vocation to the priesthood, you don’t know quite what to expect.
Like so many things in life, the reality was very different to what I had anticipated. I met with the vocations director who after a brief pleasant chat passed me onto Bishop Hegarty. Bishop Hegarty said the best way to know if priesthood was for me was to test the vocation in a sense, to enter formation in a seminary. Seminary would be a place where I could discern priesthood really was my calling. Discerning the call requires time and prayer and seminary provides this, you also receive the help of priests who have gone through the process themselves and can guide you along the way. Even though I was quite nervous, the idea of going to seminary felt very reassuring, at last I could figure out if this was my calling or not.
As I soon discovered, discernment is not just about determining through prayer and reflection if you are called to priesthood. It was more complex than that. New questions began to emerge: was I being called to a religious order or was I being called to a diocese? Was I being called to minister in Ireland or elsewhere in the world? The latter question really began to niggle at me when I was sent to Rome to study theology. I had contemplated being a missionary from time to time but I didn’t seriously contemplate missionary life until meeting many wonderful missionary priests in Rome. While in Rome I also had first-hand experience of the richness of the Universal Church for the first time. I had always known that the Church encompasses people of different nationalities, languages and cultures but living among priests from different countries in Rome really impressed upon me the value of living in an international community, sharing experiences, praying together and learning from one another. After prayer and discernment with my spiritual director, I joined the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD). I was with the SVD for 4 ½ years and I spent some time in the United States and a year in Taiwan studying Mandarin Chinese. I am most grateful for the experience as I returned to Ireland with greater clarity and focus having learnt so much from my International confreres. I know that when God calls us to do something he provides us with the grace to do it and my experience as a religious has equipped me to serve him better.
During my time abroad, I couldn’t overlook the Irish vocations crisis. While vocations were blossoming in third world countries, the number of Irish vocation was dropping steadily. The situation only worsened during my stay with the SVD. I prayed about the situation and discerned that returning home and ministering as a priest in my own diocese was a priority.
I still feel unworthy to serve God as a priest, but if I have learned anything along the way it is that no-one is worthy of this vocation. God calls certain men to the priesthood not because of any goodness of their own but because he has a mission for each of one of them, and He supplies us with the support and grace we need to carry it out.
I feel blessed to be given the opportunity to serve as a priest of the diocese. I hope that reading this vocation story will help some young man to pluck up the courage to approach the diocese as I once did and set out on the wonderful journey towards priesthood with the assurance that God will be with them every step of the way.