Monday, April 30, 2007

Prayers for Vocations

If we are to have an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life we need to pray more. Vocations come from God. We have to ask him for them.
Sometimes we forget to pray. Sometimes we just find it hard to come up with the right words. Sometimes we're just too pre-occupied with other things. Here's a link to a website of the US Conference of Bishops that simply lists lots of prayers for vocations. Why not download some of them? You can pick afavourite and use it each day.
If you are a parent you can scroll down to the end or simply click here for a prayer just for you.

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. You can read Pope Benedict's Message by following this link to the Vatican Website.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday (from the Gospel that is read on this day). In this sermon Fr Christopher Mahar explains the association of the Good Shepherd with prayer for vocations. He also expresses his joy at serving God's people as a priest (Fr Mahar was ordained on the Feast of St Josemaria Escriva, 2004).

I don't get Sunday papers because there's never time to read them, but I was pleased to have my attention drawn to the online Sunday Telegraph where Fr Paul Embery, director of the National Office for Vocations, was able to get this excellent little article placed. NoV have produced a website for those thinking about priesthood. You can follow this link to Called Today. Here's an appreciative post on the site from across the pond. And here's another one from a former atheist.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Help with Discernment

Those of you who have attended the New Year retreat for young adults in this parish will be familiar with Fr Stephen Wang who teaches theology at Allen Hall, the seminary for Westminster diocese. If Fr Stephen is at home talking to three hundred or so young people at New Year, a recent post on the Westminister diocesan website shows that he is equally at home talking to young men considering their vocation.
It is worth visiting the site (click here) to read Fr Stephen's four articles on discernment:

1. How do I know if God is calling me to be a priest?

2. What can I do to become clearer about my vocation?

3. Vocation: Different calls in the New Testament.

4. Things to read about priesthood and vocation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vocations Activities in Southwark

The last post has generated a lot of interest. I hope you find it helpful. I promised to do a follow-up on what happens here in Southwark to support vocations. In the comment box for the last post Mark expresses an interest in knowing more about the signs of a vocation. I'll try and deal with that on another occasion, today I just want to let you know what we offer.
It will be clear from the last post that early contact with the Vocations Director is really important. This Blog is also important and I know that it has helped a number of young men contact their respective dioceses. It is also a point of contact for people who have already spoken with me and, importantly, for those just dipping their toes. However, there is no substitute for personal contact with the Vocations Director. At the same time it is important to be clear that meeting the Vocations Director doesn't mean that you are somehow committed to being ordained seven years down the line. In Southwark we try to offer opportunities to meet informally the Vocations Director and other young men thinking of priesthood. In what follows I'll give an account of these opportunities.
Seekers Meetings
Seekers Meetings take place on the third Friday of each month. The first part of the evening involves some input on topics such as prayer and the interior life. This is usually given by me or another priest, although sometimes we have a guest (last Friday we had Br Martin OFR). After the talk there is time to meat informally and get to know each other. We then sit down to a meal together. At the end everyone goes home (having washed up!) hopefully inspired by what they've heard and encouraged by the people they've met. There's always an opportunity to speak with me privately should anyone wish to. The Seekers Meetings are important but I recognise that they may not suit everyone. In order to sort out the catering I need to know how many people will be turning up so it's usual to let me know.
Each term we try to offer our seminarians and those interested in priesthood a chance to come and spend some time together in the parish. On St John's Day (27th December) there is a Mass (up until now it has been celebrated by the Archbishop) in the morning. Sometimes there's a film or other activity. There's always a nice meal followed by a time when we just hear from each other about whatever interests them. On Good Friday I invite those who wish to join us for the Solemn Liturgy followed by Hot Cross buns. They are welcome to hang round as long as they like afterwards. Most stay for Stations of the Cross in the evening. In the summer we have a barbecue. The important thing about these events is that they provide a chance for men thinking about priesthood to meet each other, ask questions, and receive encouragement.
Vocations Week
The Vocations Week takes place in July and is for seminarians, seekers and those seriously considering a priestly vocation. It's not quite a week as it starts on Tuesday afternoon and ends on Friday. This year we will be going back to the Sacred Heart School in Woldingham. During the week there are various inputs on different aspects of priestly ministry and Catholic life in this country.
Vocations Retreat
The Vocations Retreat takes place in March. It takes place at St John's Seminary, Wonersh and is run jointly with the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. It is open to everyone but is best suited to those who have begun to develop a clear sense of being called to priesthood. It helps to visit the seminary, to meet the students there and ask them questions, and also to have that time out to consider the call prayerfully. The Retreat has been very helpful in the past: some participants have seen clearly that they are called to diocesan priesthood while others have soon realised that their call lies elsewhere.
Discovering Priesthood Days
DPDs are a new initiative and are designed to encourage and support vocations among the under 18s. They take place once a term and we try to have them in each of the episcopal areas. This year we plan to hold an additional one at the Seminary.
What else...?
I'm always keen to talk at university chaplaincies and schools. We're working on the format of one day events for secondary schools and hope to have it completed soon. I'm sure there's lots more that can be done and am always happy to receive suggestions. So now it's over to you...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Applying for Priesthood: Timetable

A couple of anonymous comments recently have asked about the timing of the Selection Conference. For example:
When is the cut off date for entry this this year to the seminary courses starting in September? My understanding is that there is an assessment weekend in London in April/May.
I thought it might be useful to explain the procedure for applying to the seminary.
Initial Contact
If you think you may have a vocation to the priesthood at some time you need to make contact with the Vocations Director of your diocese. If you don't know who he is you can either ask your parish priest (recommended) or get his details from the UK Priest site on the links bar (also recommended).
It is important not to delay contacting the Vocations Director. Amongst other things he has to process all your paperwork (baptism certificates, references, application forms and the like). This can take several months. He also has to get to know you sufficiently well to be able to give you a reference. All this takes time.
Formal Application
As you get to know each other better the question will arise naturally about making a formal application ormally this would be made by the end of the Christmas (Michaelmas) term. There are a number of important considerations here:
A student in his last year at university would be well-advised not to wait until after Finals before contacting the Vocations Director. If you apply too late it is unlikely that you will be able to start that same year;
Furthermore, you have to allow the Vocations Director time to get to know you;
Finally experience has led us to become more cautious about putting someone forward for the Selection Conference. If in the past there was a tendency to let a man go forward unless there were signs he didn't have a vocation, now most vocations directors would be looking for positive signs of a priestly vocation before sending someone to the Selection Conference. There are three reasons for this: 1. the Vocations Director's recommendation carries a lot of weight with the Selectors who presume he has done his job properly, 2. we would prefer to delay an application rather than have someone turned down, 3. it is not fair to admit someone to the seminary unless we are sure they show signs of a potential vocation.
The Selection Procedure
The last post was about what happens at the Selection Conference and I won't repeat that here. At Wonersh the Conference usually takes place some time in April. The paperwork has to be with the seminary several weeks, indeed about a month, beforehand. It usually takes at least a month for all the paperwork to come together (for example, references can be quite slow in coming in). Hence most Vocations Directors would like to make a start by the end of December and certainly not later than the end of January.
Apart from the Selection Conference there are various other interviews that need to be arranged. One of these is a psychological assessment. There are relatively few approved places where this can be carried out and they quickly get booked up in advance.
The Meeting with the Bishop
At the end of the process, after the Bishop has had time to receive and digest all the various reports there is in most dioceses a formal interview with the Bishop. At some point after this interview the candidate will hear whether or not he has been accepted and usually where the Bishop would like him to study. This interview may take place in May or even as late as June.
Starting Seminary
Depending on where you are sent, the term usually begins in September or October but new seminarians start early. Those who study abroad might also be expected to join the other new men for a language course in July or August.
I hope you can see from what I've said that it is very important not to delay contacting your Vocations Director. Don't leave things till the last minute. In my next post I'll let you know some of the things we offer in Southwark that give men thinking of priesthood a chance to explore without making any commitments and also give the Vocations Director and the Archbishop a chance to get to know you long before the deadline for making an application. Every diocese will be offering something but it's up to you to find out...

The Selection Conference

Over the weekend I was at St John's Seminary, Wonersh for the Selection Advisory Conference. There were sixteen candidates attending the Conference including four from Southwark. Arundel and Brighton also had four candidates and most of the other dioceses from the Province had sent one or two men along.

For the applicants the weekend begins with lunch on Friday. The best part of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning are taken up with interviews and other activities. Each candidate is interviewed by a priest who will ask him about his prayer life and his sense of vocation. The interviewer will also try to ascertain the extent to which the candidate has an understanding of the faith. A second interview tries to build up a picture of who the candidate is: his interests and hobbies, his family life and background as well as his general human maturity and understanding of celibacy. A third interview looks at the candidate's educational background. Here the question is one of his capacity to study. As well as these three key interviews they also meet with a psychiatrist who seeks to determine whether there are any relevant questions of mental health that the panel should be aware of. If so he is, of course, in a position to give an objective professional opinion. The Southwark candidates also have their medical during the weekend.

After everyone has been interviewed the panels meet to discuss their impressions before reporting back to a plenary session on Sunday morning. They then make recommendations which are forwarded to each candidate's bishop. It is of course the bishop who ultimately makes the decision whether or not to accept a candidate as a seminarian for his diocese.

I must say I found the weekend very helpful. I was glad I attended and now appreciate very much more the work of the panel members. When I got back there was a comment on another post about the timetable for admission. I'll do a separate pot in response to that.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Who is Stephen Langridge?

People sometimes comment that they rarely (if ever) see a picture of me on the internet. So I thought it about time I posted a photo of Stephen Langridge - but it does require some explanation...

On Monday I received an email from Stephen Langridge who had 'googled' his name and found various posts referring to me. Since we live practically round the corner from each other we arranged to meet for lunch on Friday. When your surname is relatively uncommon it is a bit odd to open the door to someone who introduces himself as you! It was, however, a very pleasant encounter and we found that, apart from the name, Stephen and I had a number of things in common. There is only about a year's difference between us. We are both fathers - although not in the same sense! We both have a working knowledge of German, Italian and Spanish. However, in one important respect we are very different: Stephen Langridge is a well known director of opera whereas, as any parishioner would testify, I'd be distinguished rather for my musical inability.
I was curious about 'googling' the name and Stephen explained that he keeps a check on reviews of his work and has set up a 'google alert'. Google allows you to register key words and will send you an email when they appear on websites. It sounds a useful tool and I must set one up for the vocations work. Amusingly, Stephen emailed the following day to say that he's received another alert that morning "about you of course" :o).

So this post is not about vocations at all. It is for Stephen Langridge - the consolation of a alert referring to this blog where there is finally a post about him!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Holy Father's Anniversary & Birthday Celebration

I've just come back from a reception at the Throne Room in Archbishop's House, Westminster. Some time ago I'd received an invitation from the Nuncio to attend and I was quite keen to for two reasons. The first is that the reception was given to mark both the second anniversary of Pope Benedict's election and also his eightieth birthday. The second is more mundane: the Blog started after a similar event hosted by the Nuncio last June.
This evening's reception was extremely well attended. I had the impression that there were more than at the summer one which was impressive since many of the ambassadors present had to go on to two further diplomatic events. I did have the impression once again that clergy can be quite timid on these occasions and can seem to spend most of their time at the outer edge of the room. I think it's important to dive into the centre and meet as many people as possible - not in order to 'network' but simply to try to be an encouragement to the lay people present.
It was good to see Southwark very well represented. There were a good number of lay people as well as priests. I was pleased to meet up again with Fr Jeremy Fairhead who has done such a wonderful job at the Oxford chaplaincy. I was also pleased to meet Fr Peter Wilson from the London Chaplaincy. He has quite a few Southwark students because some campuses are both sides of the river. He's invited me over to meet the Southwark men and I hope we will firm up a date soon.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Divine Mercy Sunday

Long before I came to the Holy Ghost the parish has hosted a big Divine Mercy pilgrimage on the Sunday after Easter, now known as Divine Mercy Sunday. This year we did not advertise the event as I have been having difficulty getting help with our regular Sunday Masses and also with finding priests to help with Confessions. Fortunately I happened to speak with Fr Sylvester, a Ugandan priest, this week and he was very happy to come along to help out. After the three morning Massesm and a quick lunch, the devotions began at 2.30 with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The Rosary and then the Divine Mercy Chaplet (sung) followed while the priests took up their place in the Confessional. I gave Benediction at 3.45pm and then went back to hearing Confessions while Fr Sylvester celebrated the Mass at 4.00pm. There were easily a couple of hundred people present - not bad for an event we had deliberately not advertised! It was a sung Mass which finished just after 5pm, although it took a while to clear the Church, giving the sacristan just under half an hour to prepare everything for the evening Mass.
We always have lots of Confessions in our parish. Sometimes I think it is a Sacrament more popular with young people, especially young adults, than with some older generations. Of course having two priests helps - it means we can offer the Sacrament every day and at times convenient to the people: a basic rule of marketing is that you have to go to where the punters are! It is a wonderful Sacrament and a very important part of priestly ministry. I always remember with what eloquent simplicity Mother Theresa summed up what happens when she gave us a talk at Seminary: "You enter the confessional a sinner burdened with sin and you leave it a sinner without sin".

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fresh Air

I'm thinking of buying a bike. I go into central London about once a week and with the extension of the Congestion Charge zone I now have to pay £8 for the dubious privilege. Additionally, yesterday I had to cough up an additional £12 for a couple of hour's parking. I'd soon recover the cost of a bike and get some exercise to boot.

This new found fervour for exercise is partly fuelled by a Bank Holiday walk in Surrey. I've got a rather handy book entitled "Pub Walks". The idea is that you meet at a pub for lunch and then go for a post-prandial ramble. We met at the Queen Victoria just outside Guildford and then went for a walk along the River Wye. It was very enjoyable and as you can see from the photograph above we passed some very pretty little places.
Some people don't like these guide books, preferring to use the Ordinance Survey maps. Personally I find them useful in unfamiliar territory and full of interesting information that one might otherwise miss. I doubt, for example, that I'd have seen this plaque unless the book had alerted me to its presence.
Since Monday I've been making use of the Easter lull to try to restore a certain degree of order to the house and catch up on office work. I found I had 250 unanswered emails :o( Now I'm down to forty five which is much more reasonable.

Monday, April 09, 2007

What makes you happy?

Our modest little Church was looking quite attractive this morning

I was quite happy yesterday. The Easter ceremonies all went very well and we had a massive attendance despite so many of our parishioners being away. In addition to the Reception and adult baptism at the Easter Vigil we had three more baptisms during the 11.30am Mass. After the morning Masses we tucked into a fantastic lunch prepared by one of our parishioners who also provided a very nice bottle of wine - particularly welcome since I had given up alcohol for Lent. All that followed by a quick snooze in the afternoon followed by some Office, some prayer and a trip to visit some friends whom I hadn't seen for some time and who had invited me over.

While there I was shown an article in the Sunday Times on happiness. You can read the whole article here. The reason it is interesting is that research seems to suggest that economic well-being has no effect on people's happiness. The article puts the point strongly:
Public expenditure, leisure time, crime, gender inequality, income inequality, depression — none of these is correlated with measures of happiness over time. If we believe that the data over time on recorded happiness have any real meaning, they suggest one thing very strongly: attempts to improve the human lot by social and economic policy are a monumental exercise in futility.

But that's not all. It goes on to identify two factors that positively affect people's overall happiness. What are they? The first is marriage. Married people are on the whole happier than those alone or in 'relationships'. The second is religion. People who have faith are happier than those who are not:

Marriage makes people far less likely to suffer psychological illness, and more likely to live much longer and be both healthier and happier.
The benefits are confined to those who are married rather than cohabiting. And these benefits are large. In terms of health, for example, the longevity effect of marriage may even offset the consequences of smoking. Religious faith also has a distinct positive effect on happiness.

The author of the article draws some pretty obvious conclusions but ones we rarely hear these days:

In so far as policy conclusions can be drawn at this stage of happiness research, they seem to imply increased support for marriage, reductions in incentives to single parents and the promotion of faith schools. It’s hardly the mix that is usually heard from the liberal advocates of wellbeing policies.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Easter

After a tremendous Easter Vigil I'd like to wish you all a very happy Easter. Tonight I was able to baptise a lady who has desired to become a Catholic for the last six years. I suppose in every parish there are people who desperately want to become members of the Church and yet somehow it doesn't happen immediately. It has to be in the Holy Spirit's time. It always reminds me of the priority of grace in our lives. Anyway I was particularly pleased to baptise and confirm Nichola tonight.

I also received Gavin (pictured here with his parents). Gavin is a young jazz musician. His parents baptised him Methodist and it was good to see them present at the Vigil tonight.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

Last night we had nearly three hundred people at our Mass of the Lord's Supper. It's not an enormous number - about a quarter of our Sunday Mass attendance. At the Holy Ghost we try to do things as well as we possibly can and consequently a great deal of care had gone into the Liturgy. The Servers were well-rehearsed and our Music Director ensured everything went smoothly on that front. After the Mass the Church remained open until midnight for people to come and pray at the Altar of Repose. It was good to see a steady flow of people returning to the Church throughout the night. Quite a few, young and old, stayed to spend at least an hour in prayer.

This morning there was another practice for the Altar Servers in preparation for the afternoon Liturgy. People often comment on how impressed they are by our Servers, particularly on Good Friday. Today we had thirty-six Altar Servers, all perfectly synchronised and immaculately turned out. It seemed as if the procession from the Sacristy would never terminate. I was pleased therefore when afterwards someone commented on how the care we put into things and the reverence of the Servers help them reflect on the enormity of today's celebration. The sung Passion, with the haunting ancient chants also helps people enter into the spirit of the Liturgy, as does the 'creeping to the Cross' which - with nearly six hundred people present - took the best part of an hour.

Confessions have also gone very well this week. We have Confessions every day in the parish which helps minimise the mad rush at the end of Lent that can sometimes happen. Today we were kept going for an additional two hours. I know that some priests are hesitant about offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation today because an earlier edition of the Missal speaks of an 'ancient tradition' according to which the Sacraments 'are not celebrated today'. However, the new editio typica of the Roman Missal is more explicit and adds "except Penance and the Sacrament of the Sick".

After the Celebration of the Lord's Passion any seminarians, Seekers and those interested in knowing more about the priesthood were welcomed at the presbytery where we laid on toasted Hot Cross Buns. There were then more Confessions before Stations of the Cross and the veneration of the Relic of the True Cross, before some of us settled down to watch the final installment of the EWTN Holy Week Retreat.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Chrism Mass

This morning I was at the Cathedral to concelebrate at the Chrism Mass with other priests of the diocese. I don't know how many we were but I should estimate that there were at least two hundred and fifty. The Chrism Mass is particularly significant for priests. It is not just that we come together in order to express our unity in the presbyterate (and also for a meal afterwards). It is also the annual occasion when we renew our priestly promises to serve Christ through the service of his people in prayer, Word and Sacrament.

The Cathedral was completely full which was nice to see particularly since in England Maundy Thursday is still a work day. Another nice touch is that for three years or so there has been a small group of women and young girls holding placards expressing their support for our priestly work. The placards have messages like "We love our priests" and "Thank you to our beloved priests". As we process in for the start of Mass we are presented with a little prayer card with an intercession for our ministry. The group seems to get bigger (and younger!) each year and I know from the comments as we were vesting that many of the priests are really touched by this little gesture of affection and thanks.

After the Chrism Mass we headed back to the parish where the Sacristan and servers had been preparing the Altar of Repose which looked lovely as usual.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Holy Week Retreat

I'm getting lots of very kind feedback from the Holy Week Retreat being broadcast this week by EWTN. In Britain some people have mentioned that they have switched on at the published time only in order to find a French or German programme. If you are finding a sudden increase in foreign language programmes it is probably because your receiver needs to be re-tuned to another Satellite: Hotbird is going to transmit more and more in French and German while Eurobird offers the English programmes.
Another difficulty is that there has been a timetable change. No one has said anything about the 2.00am slot, but the 2.00pm broadcast now comes on at 3pm, and the 8pm broadcast is now on at 10pm. The themes so far have been: Conversion, Ascetical Struggle & the Malice of Sin. Tomorrow (Maundy Thursday) I speak about the Holy Mass and following Christ's call (vocation).

I must say I am pleased with some lovely shots of the Church and our wonderful congregation. The Stations of the Cross come out really well and I'm thinking that it would be worth getting a professional to photograph them. It is strange seeing oneself on television - I usually preach without note and am much more relaxed. For these meditations I stick quite closely to the notes and, conscious of the need to be understood, I speak too slowly. Nevertheless I think there's plenty of doctrinal and spiritual content which is the important thing. I pray that they will be of benefit and that at least one person might be encouraged to take a further step towards the priesthood.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Holy Father Praying for Vocations

Today's Zenit has the following newspiece on the Holy Father's prayer intentions for April:

During the month of April, Benedict XVI will pray that every Christian may answer the call to sanctity. The Holy Father will ask that every Christian may answer enthusiastically and faithfully the universal call to sanctity, allowing himself to be enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Apostleship of Prayer announced the intentions chosen by the Pope. The Pontiff also prays for an apostolic intention each month. For April, his intention is: "That the number of priestly and religious vocations may grow in North America and the countries of the Pacific Ocean, in order to give an adequate answer to the pastoral and missionary needs of those populations."

Let's join him as he prays for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Selection Conference

This year we have four candidates attending the Selection Conference at Wonersh. A fifth applicant is a former Anglican Clergyman and in such cases the procedures are slightly different. The Selection Conference starts at lunch time on Friday 20th April and ends after lunch on Sunday 22nd. There are currently eighteen candidates from the various dioceses booked in to attend.
The purpose of the Selection Conference is to try to discern whether a candidate has sufficient awareness of the priesthood to begin training. At the same time, it's not a test - no one expects of someone going into seminary the insights gained through years of formation! But the Conference can make an assessment of where the candidate is starting, his openness to formation and his capacity to study. It is on this basis that the Conference can make its recommendations to the Archbishop.
I've not been on a Selection Conference panel but I think we can make a fair guess at the sort of questions our candidates can expect. I would expect, for example, that a candidate be asked about his prayer and sacramental life. Does he have a Spiritual Director? What understanding does he have of the Church? Why does he want to be a priest? What does he understand a priest to do? I imagine there will also be questions about his emotional maturity, his understanding of celibacy and his interests and hobbies.
Please keep all our applicants and those from other dioceses in your prayers.