Call to priesthood is one of reconciliation and hope
This week, the Catholic Voice will be running a series of articles related to Vocations Week. The following article was written by Parish Priest of St Joseph’s O’Connor, Fr Paul Nulley.
I will never forget the first time I met a victim of clerical sex-abuse. I was a seminarian, working as a prison chaplain.
I met a young man, a few years older than me, whom I went to visit. He explained his story – that he was abused at 11, shortly after that he started using heroin and his life seemed to go downhill from there.
He was coming up for parole and was hopeful to have a new start at life. He had dreams of opening his own bike shop, or at least being able to buy a bike when he got out.
He had been through a Church process which found that he was entitled to compensation. He had made a phone call to the particular office, and when the person on the end of the line did not sound helpful, he said he was scared to continue the process.
I felt many different deep emotions during that time and I was upset with the Church – specifically, that this tragedy of abuse had happened and that there weren’t better processes in place to assist this man get back on his feet.
Remarkably, he said he was not angry at the Church because it was a person who did this to him. At that moment, I felt he had much more faith than me.
A few years earlier, Pope Benedict XVI had come to Australia for World Youth Day and I remember being interviewed about an apology he was about to make on behalf of the Church to all victims of child sexual abuse by clergy and religious.
At the time I didn’t know why he was apologising – I was incredibly naïve and never imagined it was a problem with the Church that I had grown up with and experienced. In fact, I don’t think I had ever heard much about it when I was growing up.
I am now a Vocations Director and so it might sound unusual that my first article for National Vocations Awareness Week begins with this reflection on my first encounter with a victim of clerical sexual abuse and my initial naivety about this issue when I entered the seminary.
But a call to the priesthood is always heard and understood in the context of a culture and there is no way that the Church in Australia, Post-Royal Commission, can speak about vocations without speaking specifically to this context.
In fact, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse started in 2013, the year I was ordained.
Like every Australian and every Catholic, I could not believe the systemic cover up, the number of Catholics, especially priests and religious who had complaints against them, and what victims subsequently suffered from an Institution that should have had them at the centre.
I wear my clerical collar most of the time and so I get all kinds of reactions – I get it when people are angry and yell at me, even though we’ve never met, because I’ve been angry at what the collar represents for them.
But I’ve also had profound encounters with other people who have seen me in the street or at the shops, who have been deeply impacted by this issue and a simple smile has led into a deep conversation.
Christ is the one who heals and he does so in a very special way through the ministry of priests. It is because I have experienced the peace of Christ, especially through the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and in quiet prayer, that I can be an instrument of peace, to listen to people share their deep wounds, to share in this in some way and to take these pains to Christ.
At this time of great hurt and division, even within the Church as preparations for the Plenary Council has also revealed, I think the Church needs priests who are people of reconciliation.
I therefore do not find it surprising that the many young men who are discerning vocations have a very personal and profound encounter with Jesus, who not only heals but offers hope.
As I was preparing this article I visited the headspace website to discover alarming statistics about the mental wellbeing of TAFE students in Australia:
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide: 35.4 per cent
- Feeling stressed: 83.2 per cent
- Lack of energy or motivation: 82.1 per cent
- Feeling anxious: 79.0 per cent
- Low mood: 75.8 per cent
- Feelings of hopelessness/worthlessness: 59.2 per cent
- Trouble sleeping: 55.6 per cent
- Panic: 52.7 per cent
Pope Francis in his most recent document, Christus Vivit, wrote specifically about vocational discernment:
- A particular form of discernment involves the effort to discover our own vocation. Since this is a very personal decision that others cannot make for us, it requires a certain degree of solitude and silence. “The Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment. Yet we simply cannot do without the silence of prolonged prayer, which enables us better to perceive God’s language, to interpret the real meaning of the inspirations we believe we have received, to calm our anxieties and to see the whole of our existence afresh in his own light”.
This is an important passage for any person experiencing hopelessness or despair. God loves you more than you can imagine and He has a plan for your life. This plan will be discovered in silence and prayer.
Perhaps the very hurts in your own life, your own fears and anxieties will be the place where you will experience the transforming love of God and discern his call for your life.
After all, it is only when we experience the peace of Christ in our life, when we experience peace in ourselves that we have any real chance of having peace in our world.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
If you feel the Lord calling you to explore the possibility of the priesthood or consecrated life, or if you would like more information on the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn’s discernment initiatives, please contact our Archdiocesan Vocations Director Fr Paul Nulley: email@example.com, or the Assistant Director Fr Trenton van Reesch: or firstname.lastname@example.org.