Today we concelebrate Mass to mark the conclusion of a special year of prayer for an increase in vocations to priesthood and religious life. We congratulate Armagh Provincial Council of St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society who took the decision to have this special year of prayer. We welcome those members of the Society who have come to Armagh today. They are led by their National President, Eileen Sparling, on her last day in office and last official duty and by Hubert Reynolds, the incoming National President.
A special word of welcome to

Bishops MacKiernan, Boyce, Brooks and Clifford;
to Mgr. Farrell, President of Maynooth College;
to Father Ferris representing Bishop McAreavey.
We welcome all who have come from St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society –

The National Chaplain; The National Vice Presidents; National Officers; Members of the National Executive Committee; Representatives of the other three Provincial Councils; The officers and representatives from the Armagh Provincial Council; The officers and representatives from branches of the Society within the Archdiocese, led by the Diocesan Chairman, Dan McCann; The officers and representatives from each other eight Diocesan Councils in the Province.

I also welcome Vocations Directors, Priests from other dioceses, Clerical students,
The representatives of religious communities and other religious and apostolic organizations.
We praise and thank God for the gift of life and especially for the call to be holy. We recognise the fact that we haven’t always lived up to or answered that call faithfully and we ask pardon for our sins.


This is not an easy Gospel to preach: especially for people who have grand titles and who wear mitres and fancy robes, who get more than our fair share of places of honour and front seats. And yet, preach it we must and above all we must try and practise what we preach.

Jesus is devastating in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day. Yes, he says, people must listen to them and do what they say, for they occupy the chair of Moses. They are the official teachers. Unfortunately they did not practise what they preached. Unfortunately, instead of lightening people’s burden they made them heavier. Instead of drawing attention to the only one Master, the Scribes and Pharisees drew attention to themselves. Instead of pointing out that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the One Only Father, and therefore equal in His sight, they managed to give the impression that they were superior and deserving of special honour. Instead of pointing to the one and only Teacher, the Christ, they set themselves up as THE TEACHERS and were happy to be greeted with great deference and respect.

Before he ascended to the Father, Jesus left clear teaching to the Apostles to be carried out:

Go, announce the Good News to the ends of the earth.
Baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven.
Do this in memory of me.

By carrying out those commands they were to lighten people’s burdens, the burdens of guilt and shame for example which is the result of our sins. They were to take away the burden of fear with the Good News that all the baptised are called to holiness of life. That all are called to follow Christ and to lead others to him and to be happy with him forever in eternity.

In other words the Good News is that everyone has a God-given vocation. For each one of us is called to share God’s life and to live that life to the full and to live up to our dignity as children of God.
Gradually it became clear that there were other, more specific vocations to be found among the people of God. The apostles soon realised that if they were going to do all that Jesus left them to do, they would need help. They saw that they would need priests to help them preach the Good News and celebrate the sacraments and bring God’s pardon and peace to sinners. They realised that God calls people to specific roles in the Church as priests, as religious nuns and brothers. Down through the centuries that call has been answered generously and gladly. Down through the centuries there have been people who have been particularly attentive to the command of Christ, to pray to the Lord to send labourers into his harvest.

Today we are very happy to welcome one such group of people to Armagh. The St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society was founded just over 100 years ago by Olivia Taaffe from the parish of Ardee in this Archdiocese. By their prayers, their sacrifices, their financial contributions, the members of the Society help young men to hear the call of God to priesthood and follow that call to ordination.
Today we thank God for St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society. We thank the Society for all they do. We thank them and we thank God for the decision of the Armagh Provincial Council to have a special year of prayer for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Your prayers, your sacrifices, your help, are a wonderful sign of hope for the Church and especially for the Church in those countries that are now regaining their freedom after years of suppression and persecution. During the Synod, the Bishop of Banska Bystrica in Slovakia, came to the Irish College to thank the Irish Bishops for the help which the Irish Church gives to him in the work of educating his seminarians. He has something like 120 seminarians for one diocese and obviously his needs are great. He is very grateful for the help received. I sat beside a Bishop from Romania. He told me that there are some 500 seminarians in that country and obviously they have great needs.

I ask that you continue this wonderful apostolate throughout your 480 branches. I urge you to remember that your prayers are heard and are bearing fruit somewhere in the world because they are in accord with the wishes of God.

Today we celebrate this concelebrated Mass to mark the end of that year of prayer. We thank God for all the vocations of the century and of the millennium that is ending. They have been outstanding witnesses to Christ. They have been a sign of great hope to the people to whom they ministered especially those who live and work in difficult circumstances.

The members of St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society are well aware that God has not stopped calling young men to become priests. I am sure they get requests for help all the time. In fact at the end of 1997, there were 2,647 more seminarians in the world than there were one year earlier in 1996. Yes, 2,647 more seminarians, making a total of 108,000. But, the sad fact is that in Europe there were 788 less.
I have just come back from the Special Synod of Bishops in Rome. It dealt with Jesus Christ – the Source of Hope for Europe and the one word that crept cropping up was crisis. Europe itself – not just vocations, not just the faith, but Europe itself is in crisis. Europe is tired. In more than 90% of European countries the population is in decline. The Italian President Ciamp, visited Pope John Paul ten days ago. He spoke of the sadness of “empty cradles”. Europe is in crisis. It is tired. It is even too tired to vote at times.

But crisis can also be a positive event in life. It can help us to see the truth about what is in crisis. The crisis of Europe in general is in the difficulty which people experience in living up to their vocation – whether that vocation be to priesthood or to married life or to religious life. Fewer men feel called to the priesthood nowadays for the same reason that fewer feel inclined to get married. Both vocations demand generosity and sacrifice and life commitment. Both demand the courage to give oneself for others. God does not stop calling. Today men don’t seem to have the freedom to respond to that call. It is a crisis in responsibility. I ask your prayers for all of us priests and bishops that we may be faithful in our efforts to respond
So, the Synod is proposing that all that is possible should be done to support families to be true domestic churches, that is

· families where there is faith, a faith that is valued and guarded as a treasure;
· A faith that is nourished by prayer;
· A faith that is strengthened by generosity and self-sacrifice.

It is from the midst of families like that, that both the call to holiness in the world and the call to holiness in priesthood and religious life will be heard. It is important that parents be helped to be open to the possibility of their children responding to the call to the priesthood or religious life.

Vocation is a free gift of God Cardinal Suard once said. It passes through the hearts of mothers, it is this that will make them great in eternity. I was appalled to hear of a mother recently who said she would not allow her son to think of becoming a priest.

The Synod calls for constant prayer in parishes and in families for a growth in the number of vocations.
One of the happiest days of this year for me was a Sunday in July when my next door neighbour, Andrew Tully, was ordained a priest. I was happy for the young man himself, for his family and for the people of the parish. There was a particular pride and joy at the fact that God had given this gift of priesthood to one of themselves, that this young man had been chosen to be a living sign of Christ, who gave up his life for love of us.

If prayer and the graces that come from prayer do not find fertile soil then the Lord’s call will not be heard. Young people need encouragement. They will get encouragement if we priests have the courage to say that yes, we are happy as priests, if we have the courage to talk about the beauty of being able to stand before a congregation and remember and reenact the story of Christ: Do this in memory of me. They will get encouragement if we are willing to talk about the joy of bringing peace and pardon to those who have been upset and feel guilty. They will get encouragement if we priests have the courage to talk about the challenges of being a priest – the challenges of trying to find answers to the deepest questions in life. The challenges of wrestling with the word of God, knowing that only Christ has the words of eternal life.
We are about to celebrate the beginning of a new millennium. The millennium itself is measured from the birth of Christ because the birth of Christ is the most important event in the history of the world. It is so because the coming of Christ into the world is the supreme proof of God’s love for humankind.

My hope is that our celebration of the millennium will lead to a renewal of faith and hope in God’s love. That is the kind of renewal that will enable us to overcome every crisis. May Mary, the mother of Jesus, the great high priest, help us to know that we have only one Master and we are all brothers and sister, that we have only one Father and he is in Heaven, that we have only one Teacher, the Christ, to whom we must listen. Let her protection also inspire the work of St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society into the next millennium.