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Fourth Tuesday of Lent

Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Every March 17th, people around the world put on their green hats and regalia, head to the pub for a few pints of Guinness and sing Irish songs. 

Usually this is because they are Irish, or have family or ancestry links to Irish emigrants. This is of course to celebrate the feast of Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland. Saint Patrick was actually not born in Ireland, he was born in a village called Bannavem Taberniae around the year 386. There is disagreement on where this village actually was, as the name has not survived on any maps. The town of Old Kilpatrick in Scotland claims to be the home of St Patrick. The Auchentoshan whisky distillery is not too far from Old Kilpatrick. Patrick was was born into an aristocratic family, but at the age of sixteen he was captured by Irish raiders, and spent six years as a shepherd-slave in Ireland. Eventually, after apparently hearing the voice of God telling him to leave Ireland, he travelled to the East of Ireland and managed to escape. After training to be a priest, he was ordained and returned to Ireland to spread Christianity there, for the rest of his life. The fable of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes is perhaps an allegory of ridding Ireland of paganism, since there were never any snakes on Ireland to start with! The three-leaved ‘shamrock’ was supposedly used by St Patrick to explain the Trinity to the pagans, and from around the 18th century Irish Catholics wore the shamrock on March 17th. This custom eventually developed into wearing green clothing and the tri-coloured hats.

Given the long history of Catholicism in Ireland and the historic importance of the Church in Ireland, it is disheartening to hear of the crisis in religious vocations and a massive reduction in the number of men training to be Catholic Priests. It is a mathematical certainty that in 15-20 years time there will be far fewer priests in Ireland, not enough to sustain the current number of parishes. I was surprised to read that the ‘Association of Catholic Priests’ in Ireland proposed a solution to the ‘crisis’ in the lack of candidates - the ordination of women, and allowing priests to marry. However, the Bishop of Derry (+Dr Donal McKeown) points out that churches that have married clergy and women priests have the exact same struggle with getting clergy and retaining them, and this is a simplistic solution to a complex question of a shortage of vocations. 

One reason for a decrease in vocations is that many opportunities are open to young people now in Ireland, than ever before. Seminaries were sometimes a way out of poverty. Religious life was actively promoted in large families, where some of the sons would be encouraged to enter junior seminaries at a relatively early age, and a proactive environment to encourage women to enter religious life, since a professional career path was not usually an option. This made sense, as the Catholic Church used to run a large number of institutions which are now either secularised or have completely changed as Ireland became more wealthy. The ‘shortfall’ in Ireland today is not entirely a negative phenomenon. Rather than having men or women feeling they have few options than to pursue a religious vocation, there are many other options open to young people. If anyone does join a religious order or seminary, then it is likely an authentic vocation rather than out of necessity or cultural expectation. Just as St Patrick heard God calling him to leave Ireland and train to become a priest, he subsequently had a divinely-inspired urge to return to the ‘emerald isle’ to evangelise the populace. And so the same goes for Catholics who feel a calling to religious life: it happens because God is calling, rather than for any other reason.

Luke Doherty O.P.

Fr Luke Doherty is assistant priest at Holy Cross, Leicester, and Catholic Chaplain to HMP Leicester |  luke.doherty@english.op.org


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