Ministry Experience Scheme
This autumn we have two young men joining the Diocese of Plymouth Ministry Experience Scheme (MES). MES is a year out to live and serve in a local community, experience ministry in a parish and discover the life that God is calling them to.
They will spend the year from September to June working in parish ministry, with regular supervision, group support and theological development opportunities, and will be supported to develop a ‘rule of life’ for living in a presbytery-based community. During the year, they will also have an opportunity to spend two weeks exploring ministry in a different pastoral setting.
In September of this year, I am beginning the Ministry Experience Scheme organised by the Vocations Director, Fr. Ralph Candy. This represents the next stage in my discernment process, which in many respects started years ago and is just the next step on my faith journey.
For those of you who are reading these series of articles, and possibly raising the same sort of questions as I and many others have done, I’d like to share with you a little about my own sense of vocation, of being ‘called’ to the priesthood. I grew up in Leicester, in the Diocese of Nottingham, attending St Patrick’s Church in the city, where I received the sacraments of initiation. I was privileged in the sense that my mother took me and my brothers to Mass every weekend and on holy days of obligation. I went to the English Martyrs Catholic Secondary, and whilst my faith was always important to me back then, it would be fair to say, as is usual with so many teenagers these days, ‘I was less than engaged’. Part of my spirituality was a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and thus I volunteer to take children to Lourdes at Easter with the HCPT and have done so for four pilgrimages now. Special times with special people, who feed me on so many different levels through our fraternal charity and friendships.
It was at the University of Exeter that my faith journey took on a deeper meaning. I became very much involved within the Catholic Chaplaincy whilst at university, attending talks on the Catholic faith and meeting like-minded people. Whilst at the University, I began attending the local Catenian Circle, which further strengthened my faith, and I owe much to the Exeter Circle of the Catenian Association.
The community aspect of the faith was very important to me; I sought to give something back to them by cooking a meal, which was served to students after Mass on Sunday. I did this for two years, and realised then that I, at heart, had a desire to serve others. This was further expressed by serving as President of the Catholic Society in my final year of studies.
I was also fortunate enough to live at the Catholic Chaplaincy. It was there that my faith deepened, and a long-standing inclination of a priestly vocation was first vocalised. I got in touch with Fr. Jacek, Vocations Promoter, after missing a discernment day run by the Office of Vocations and spoke to him over a period of a few months, alongside Fr. Albert Lawes, Curate at the Sacred Heart Church in Exeter. Both were incredibly helpful, and I would encourage anyone who is discerning to speak to them both. After a few months, Fr. Jacek came back to me with the prospect of joining the new Diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme, and it was after saying ‘yes’ that I came to meet Fr. Ralph.
After meeting Fr. Ralph, I had very few doubts about the Ministry Experience Scheme and knew straight away that it was something I needed to do to further my discernment. I am looking forward to experiencing ministry in its fullest sense, so far only having had a narrow exposure to the complexities and realities of the Church in the twenty-first century. To see what it is like to be part of an active ministry in Exeter will aid my own discernment. The emphasis placed on prayer, the spiritual life, and personal development too will also stand me in good stead, and I can see that much thought has been put into the scheme. I look forward to getting to know more about the modern-day priesthood, and developing myself on many levels, as well as getting to know the people of the Diocese of Plymouth that much better over the coming months!
Growing up in the small village of Obeagu Awgu in Enugu State, Nigeria (a settlement much the same size of Redruth I guess, but culturally another world away!) I was lucky to have known the care and support of a close-knit community, and especially the love of my paternal grandparents, who effectively adopted me as very sadly my mother died when I was born. My father happily remarried and being the only child, I was to gain six half-brothers, although we were not to live together as my father and stepmother relocated out of State due to work commitments. We always maintained close relations however despite the distances involved.
My formative years were happy, growing fruit and vegetables after school (an hour’s walk away) to support ourselves and our neighbours. I attended both the state primary and secondary schools, and at that time half the school roll was Christian and half Muslim (my grandparents were converts to the Christian faith from Islam), so it’s true to say I lived and breathed interreligious dialogue from an early age.
My sense of vocation was nurtured at home right from the outset. I assisted the local priests in various aspects of their ministry, including singing in church, serving at Mass, teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church, organising the local ‘Rosary Crusade’, and cleaning the church. However, when I disclosed my sense of calling to my father and grandparents they were perhaps naturally opposed to this state of life; I was their only child and the question of who would raise future generations of my family clearly resonated in their minds. I spoke to my parish priest, whom I took as my spiritual father and director. He encouraged me to never give up! He also advised me to go to university for further studies, and I always recall him saying, “Damian, if God is really calling you to serve Him as a priest, it will surely manifest someday.” I welcomed the idea and proceeded to go to the state university, where I read religious studies, ecumenism, and political science, and was privileged to be engaged on teaching practice every summer.
During my time at university, I became increasingly occupied at the chaplaincy, and it was there I became known to both the Vice Chancellor, Fr Christian Anieke, and the Bishop of the Diocese, Most Rev. Anthony Gbuji (Emeritus presently). When they discovered I had an interest in becoming a priest, they were supportive, and I was selected for formation at the Diocesan seminary, where I completed studies in both philosophy and theology, accredited by the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. As any self-respecting seminarian will tell you, my seminary days were fully timetabled with spiritual, academic, pastoral, and sociocultural activities, and this sense of being rigorously ‘formed’ stays with me today. Another interesting part of my formative years in Nigeria was that I was sent to many parishes and churches on placement. Drawing on my innate strength and love for community, these placements were carried out with lots of missionary love, faith, hope, enthusiasm, zeal, energy, conviction, and confidence. I loved the people whom I was serving, and they kindly reciprocated that love through many splendored friendships.
A vocational journey is never completely straightforward (just ask one of the Old Testament prophets, even St Peter!) and towards the end of my seminary studies just prior to my ordination as a Deacon it was decided by my Bishop that I should take some time away from the seminary to further discern my future. Naturally this was a difficult time for me on many levels, and yet that yearning to pray was still there, especially the 3 o’clock hour of mercy prayer and daily recitation of the Holy Rosary. It was not long when Jesus, our Saviour, and the Blessed Mother intervened and granted me healing and restoration.
I arrived in London in October 2020 having enrolled for further studies (an MSc in Business with Entrepreneurship). The prospect of studying and living in London instilled in me lots of joy, hope, and the deep seated aspiration for a ‘fresh start’, but having arrived in the UK in the midst of a global pandemic, I had to face many other challenges centring on the national lockdown restrictions, accommodation issues, adapting to life at a new university with the ensuant ‘culture shocks’ which most Africans undergo living in Europe, and of course feeling of home sickness, living so far away from both family and friends. But by God’s special grace, someone introduced me to the local parish priest who assisted me during my transition into London living and invited me to join the parish team of lectors and the COVID-19 volunteer group. My spirituality, through fraternal charity and outreach, started to blossom again, and in hindsight I always see the grace of God working in what seemingly was an impossible situation. My trust in God’s providence grew, and I became better informed, more committed, to the support of the sick (especially those impacted by COVID-19), whilst all the time extending my circle of friends and fraternal support.
Following graduation in London I joined the NHS to work as a mental health worker and ultimately, I was assigned to work with the Cornwall Foundation NHS Trust. A long way from London you may well think! But I accepted this in good faith believing it was God’s plan for me to work once more in a rural environment, and to borrow a title from the West Country’s most renowned author, the ‘return of the native’, in the most ironical sense of course. In my usual manner, I searched for any Catholic church nearby and found the ‘Church of the Assumption’ in Redruth. Without further delay, I joined the congregation, and because of my love for Jesus and His Church, I would always request my break to coincide with the time of Sunday Mass, if the hospital had scheduled me to work on a Sunday. Amazingly, my steadfastness in attending Mass on Sunday and the recitation of the divine mercy prayers in the hospital’s multifaith room became ‘contagious’ to the extent that some of my colleagues who had abandoned their Catholic faith, shunned their egos, and started joining me at Mass on Sundays. The miracle of conversion indeed!
It was during one of the Sunday Masses earlier this year, after seeing an announcement in the Sunday bulletin from the Vocations Office encouraging men to come forward to further explore their calling, that a small voice inside said, “Damian, this is for you!” I became restless, and an internal struggle arose as to whether I should enquire again about the priesthood or remain settled in my newfound employment. I gave it over to God in prayer as the Mass continued, and following the final blessing I approached Fr. Jaroslaw immediately after Mass, and he encouraged me to write to the Vocation Promoter, Fr. Jacek, which I duly did. We met on several occasions, and during these preliminary meetings I was encouraged to go and see the Vocations Director, Fr Ralph. The process thus far has enabled me to tell my story and has enabled me to encounter a more compassionate side of the Church. It has articulated a need to hear the hope raising and encouraging message that God is with us in the trial. He walks with us along the road to Emmaus, the road of disappointment, suffering, and discouragement. Priesthood is not an end in itself, but only a means to our common end, which is heaven, the eternal salvation. There are several ways and means to this common terminus ad quem. For some Christians, the most effective means to this end may be the lay state of life, for some the consecrated religious life and for some the clerical life.
It is with joy in my heart that I have been accepted onto the Ministry Experience Scheme to explore my vocation once again. I much look forward to serving the people of the Diocese of Plymouth through this programme of pastoral work all in accordance with the parish priest and the Vocations Director.