Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran on the Occasion of Celebrating The Rite of Admission to Candidacy

Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran on the Occasion of Celebrating The Rite of Admission to Candidacy – 25th March 2021 – Solemnity of the Annunciation at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

When we pray the Creed, we profess our faith in Jesus Christ who “by the power of the Holy Spirit, was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man”. Today, we celebrate the Annunciation which culminates in Mary’s decision to say “Yes” to her part in God’s plan. It is a very appropriate context for our celebration of your Admission as Candidates for Holy Orders. As we read the account in St Luke’s Gospel, we inevitably form an image of what happened when Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary.

Before the advent of the printing press, and when the reading of the Scriptures by the faithful was discouraged, many people learnt about the mysteries of faith through the work of artists. It is not surprising that the Annunciation fired the imagination of so many of the finest classical artists, including Jan van Eyck, Filippo Lippi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, and Peter Paul Rubens. They all tried in one way or another to make the mystery visible. They are all different of course, but there are some elements which are common to most of the classical representations.

The Holy Spirit is usually represented, either in the form of a dove, or in the form of a ray of light shining in from outside. This reminds us that what is happening in Mary is the action of God himself. Mary is often depicted as being in an enclosed space, sometimes a walled garden, sometimes an inner room, or even in the Temple. This represents her purity of heart, which is not just about virginity in the narrow sense of the word, but about her single-minded dedication to God. In many of the artworks Mary is “disturbed at prayer”, which may be a common experience for many of us, though not always by an angel.

The one thing you will not find in the Gospel account, or in any of the great works of art, is any reference to the various stages of formation. One might be forgiven for thinking that the Annunciation was an event, disconnected in some sense from Mary’s life as a child and as a young woman. It seems to me that Mary could never have accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel if she were not already a woman of faith, who trusted in the goodness of God and who was regularly in communion with God through prayer. To use the words of St Augustine, she conceived him in her womb, because she had already conceived him in her heart. (Sermon 215). Mary is not just a random choice. She represents a holy people who, as we are reminded in the words of the Magnificat, waited for the Mercy promised to her ancestors from the time of Abraham. Her response to Gabriel, “let it be done to me according to your Word”, reflects the words of the prophet Samuel: “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” as well as the words of the Psalmist: “here I am Lord; I come to do your will”.

The discernment of any Christian vocation presupposes trust in the essential goodness of God. In the early stages of enquiry and perhaps into the beginning of our seminary formation, we have probably all gone through the process of wondering “what do I want to do?” or “is priesthood really want I want?” There comes a time when, with trusting hearts, we can ask ourselves with confidence, “what does God want?” By the time Gabriel arrived in her garden, Mary was already full disposed to the will of God, not as something that she had to put up with, but as something she could accept joyfully, because it was good.

An authentic discernment is a decision made in prayer, which takes into account what is practically possible and what corresponds to the deepest wishes of my heart. It is not surprising that Mary asks the Angel Gabriel: “How can this be possible, since I am a virgin?” You may have asked yourself that same question many times over the past few years: “How can this be possible?” Finding the answer to that question is an essential part of the period of discipleship which you completed some time ago. You may not have had a visit from the angel Gabriel, but you have had many honest conversations with those who are responsible for your formation and who have helped you to discern what God wants.

In discerning a vocation to priesthood, there are two essential questions:
• Who am I?
• What is priesthood?

While they are two different questions, they come together in the discernment process, in the form of one key question. Can I be me and be a priest? So you have reflected carefully on your own gifts and, as the psychologists would call them, your areas for growth. Certain human qualities are essential for anyone who would be a priest today. A heart for mission; a readiness to serve; a genuine compassion; the capacity to listen carefully; ability to work constructively with others are just a few of them.

Margaret Guenther, a Lutheran spiritual writer, described the role of a spiritual director as being something akin to that of a midwife. Like a midwife, a spiritual director can encourage you and tell you how he sees things (which maybe you cannot see) but in the end, it is your baby and only you can give birth. So now, in the light of all that you have come to understand about yourself and what you have seen and learnt about priesthood, you have discerned that God is indeed calling you to ordained ministry and you are ready to commit yourself to an even “closer configuration of yourself to Christ the Shepherd” (RF67). In this simple Rite of Admission to Candidacy, the Church confirms your discernment and promises to support you as you prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Ratio Fundamentalis “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation” speaks about admitting a man to candidacy:
“when it is deemed that his intention, marked by the required qualities, has reached sufficient maturity. For her part, in accepting the seminarian who offers himself, the Church chooses him and calls him so that he may prepare to receive Holy Orders in the future. Since it presupposes a responsible decision on the part of the seminarian, admission among the candidates for Orders is an invitation for him to continue with his formation, in configuring himself to Christ the Shepherd, through a formal recognition on the part of the Church (RF 67)

We make this discernment in humility but with confidence, because Grace, far from replacing nature, builds on nature (Summa Theologiae, I, I, 8 ad 2). I think that is what is meant by the words of the Angel Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most-high will overshadow you”. I can honestly say that this has been my experience in a life-time of ministry. When I have depended exclusively on myself or on human wisdom, I have made mistakes. When I have given my own best and trusted in God for the rest, he has been generous in his response.

When I was in my final years of formation at the Irish College in Rome, there was no internet and no satellite TV. For news of the outside world, we depended on “Pony Express” and on the BBC world service. I had an old radio that could pick up the World Service, but every so often it used to go off the frequency and I had to fine tune it. Now that you have reached the stage of Admission to Candidacy, I hope you won’t feel that the discernment is all done and dusted. The big decisions are made at particular moments in the journey, but discernment is an on-going process of fine-tuning. Pope John Paul II offers a very deep reflection on the Gospel of the Rich Young Man and how Jesus challenged him with the words “Come follow me”, “to follow him along the way of perfection” (VS 20). It would always have been easier for the young man to commit to a single difficult task, because the path of discipleship is not a straight line.

Each day and in all sorts of circumstances, the invitation is issued once again and the question inevitably is “Where does he want to lead me today?” My own personal experience would suggest that you will sometimes struggle with what God’s will entails in practice. Fifty years later, that hasn’t changed. It is worth remembering that in the Gospel according to Matthew, when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he went back three times to pray “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” always adding “yet, not my will but yours be done”. There will be days when you just don’t feel like getting up for Mass, or doing that essay, or going to the Pastoral Council meeting, or moving from one parish to another. That is when you need to remember that authentic discernment has to do with the deepest and most consistent desires of your heart, rather than with the superficial feelings that change from day to day. While Jesus struggled in his humanity with the reality of the cross, his heart never deviated from his commitment to doing the Father’s will.

One last thought! It may have crossed your mind that, when you have been admitted to candidacy, you will have no new role, no additional ministry or sacramental power. Admission to Candidacy is not about how you function, it is about who you are. It is about your relationship with the Lord and with the Church. There is an important lesson in this, and it is one that I have to keep learning, over and over again. We men have a tendency to define ourselves in terms of roles and functions. What we do flows from who we are and we will always function more effectively as disciples and as priests if we have a clear sense of our identity with Christ. That seems to be the very meaning of configuration.