‘Go back to church – do it now’! Sean Hayes

I wanted to say a few words about my experience discerning my vocation.  I grew up in a Catholic family in the most southerly part of our country, the Lizard peninsula (first Coverack, then Ruan Minor).  In my teens things changed, and I went off to university in Scotland, and then spent most of my life there as a successful engineer and was married and raised two children, but lost contact with my faith.  I went through a long struggle to regain it.  My civil marriage was annulled last year, and now my children are safely at university, and I feel God has given me a second chance at life.  In the last eight years God put a strong, in fact, irresistible desire in me to return to church and to know better Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Latterly, He has caused me to return to the place of my youth and I have fallen in love again with the natural beauty and people here.  I also see there is a great need for faith to be defended and nourished, and for people to understand afresh the saving and liberating message of Our Lord in our secular world.  The ‘Great Commandment’ does not diminish: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them all I have instructed you’.  What I dream of is a society where people see the truth and love of being in Our Lord’s family and can approach Him freely, undeterred by the false caricature that the secular world paints, or, worse still, an attitude of indifference.

Of course, we all have a vocation, a calling from God; for most people it will be to witness the Christian faith in family life in the world, which is a great privilege and challenge of its own, as I know.  Most too will witness with their working life as well, with all the temptations and opportunities that presents – I don’t believe anyone leaves their conscience at the door when they go to work.  Even Saint Paul continued to make tents when necessary to support himself.  Some people take up important roles in the Church’s many ministries which are essential.  Then for some people it will be to enter ordained life as a priest, deacon or religious sister or brother and support the Church, the body of Christ, in a particular way, with a particular kind of sacrifice.

The vocations experience started first with my parish priest.  On my return to local parish life, after dealing with the funeral of my uncle, the parish priest identified in me a calling before I had even voiced it to him.  I had several conversations with him about it.  It was something I had already been listening to within myself and talking to others about.  I found myself strongly drawn to Church and to giving myself to the Church.  I wanted to read as many faith books as I could get my hands on.  I started reading the Bible every day, avidly, and I discovered the treasures of the Old Testament as well as the New – it is, after all, the whole story of salvation through the eternal sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  I discovered the joy of praise and worship through music and singing and through the sacred liturgy.  Having been away from my faith for such a long time this was like a series of fireworks going off!  It is important to test whether you find consolation in the events of your life (literally, being ‘with the sun’) or desolation (being deprived of the sun).

I did for some time consider whether I was being called to be a priest or to be a deacon, both very serious positions, and some said I was suited to the diaconate while others said priesthood.  Only you can decide in the end with much prayer, but these inputs from clergy, friends and family were very helpful.  Times of deep prayer yield great results.  Sometimes deep prayer is brought about by difficulties in your life, and you see afterwards that it was through these difficulties you grew and received new insights and wisdom.  Sometimes these difficulties put you on a completely different path which is distressing at the time but very much for your good.  You also need to listen for God’s Word.  If you are doing all the talking in prayer, you might not hear it so well.
The parish priest led me to the Vocations Promoter.  He was a very welcoming and engaging priest, and we had many fruitful conversations.  He was someone who also had had a secular life before becoming a priest and I found a correspondence with him in many of my own life experiences, such as the ultimate lack of satisfaction with worldly things.  I was invited to a vocation’s event in Plymouth with other people who were discerning and was very much enriched by that.  We were able to speak with priests and religious people and understand their daily routine, their hopes and anxieties, the rewards they experience ministering to their flock.  We also spoke to each other and formed important friendships.  I would recommend this to everyone.  You also see things outside your parish which widens your view of the Church.

Once it was clear that I had a serious calling and that I had the necessary foundations and situation in life, I began speaking with the Vocations Director about applying formally for the priesthood.  One thing to understand is that while you may be strongly drawn to ministering in the Church, different roles have different criteria that must be met, set by the Church, founded by Jesus on the apostleship of Saint Peter.  These are not limiting, but liberating, as they simply make it clear as to the role you are best placed to fulfil.

The Vocations Director guided me through the many parts of the application.  All the time he was also helping me to discern God’s will more closely, with a great experience of his own.  There are many tests to ensure you are suited, including medical, psychological and academic aptitude, as well as your spiritual and pastoral qualities.  In some ways it is quite reassuring to know that it is not at all easy to apply to become a priest!  At this point, you are also starting to make serious life choices to depart from the secular world, without guarantee of becoming a priest.  In fact, there is no guarantee until you are ordained five years later, so you must be true to yourself and to God and be prepared to make the necessary life changes and sacrifices.

For a mature man like me, the most likely route to priesthood is through formation at seminary in both Spain and Rome, which takes a total of five years, and into which I have now been accepted.  Amazing places to be and to soak up the riches of the Catholic faith!  As part of the vocations process, I was invited to visit the Pontifical Beda College in Rome for a few days, having never been to Rome before.  The college is amazing, and the city is breathtaking.  I really think more people should know about this; while the attractiveness of a location should not matter, it at least helps paint a clearer picture of formative life which will have both its challenges and rewards.
Five years also seems a long time if you are fired up to build God’s Kingdom on earth, but it is shorter than the formation for younger men as it considers the skills and experience you have already built up.  Of course, you will still be helping in the parish in your spare time, and you will be inspiring people all the time by your example. One of the most unexpected and heartwarming things I have experienced is speaking to someone on a train, or in a hospital ward, or giving them a lift, and they say, ‘so what do you do?’  Explaining that you are applying for ‘priest school’ leaves most people in amazement, and I have found no-one who has reacted with hostility.  Most people ask, ‘Why?’ and they are left with a lot to think about in their own lives.

My greatest anxiety is whether God has called me to be His priest, or to start on the path with some other goal in mind. I regularly pray Saint Charles de Foucauld’s ‘Prayer of Abandonment’.  It has nourished me in difficult times and reminded me constantly of the passage in the Book of Proverbs, 16:9 – “A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps”.  I pray that I yield always to God’s will over my own.  One thing I can say for sure is that my life is infinitely better – and more exciting – since I responded to God’s call to “Go back to Church – do it now!”

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