Living Diocesan Priesthood– a personal reflection by Fr Dominic Howarth

The best way for me to share what being a Diocesan Priest means for me is to share some people with you. These are people I have met, and been inspired by, and I think they are people that you’ll probably recognise from your own parish. Since most of these people are still alive, I’ve combined a few into one name, so as to anonymize them here.

Let’s start with Margaret. She is seventy eight years old, and has come to Mass all her life. Now she comes to Mass each day, and sits in the same place. Her friends come to Mass as well, and part of being there is the small community that they form. If someone is missing the others know – either that they are away, or have a visitor, or – if it is unexpected – that something is wrong and they will call her as soon as they can.

It surprises me sometimes that people like Margaret feature strongly for me as a Priest. I am not great in the mornings, and often arrive for morning prayer and Mass in the Parish with my head still rather fuzzily focussed. I think it is Margaret’s constancy, above all, that inspires me. Outside there can be a blizzard, a gale, or bright sunshine, and Margaret is there, quietly praying. I will have arrived – often – by car. Margaret will have walked, or taken the bus. And Margaret will keep me up to date with who is ill, or who has had bad news – or good news, like a Grandson who has graduated, or a family member who is getting married.

James is quite a different sort of person. He, like me, is not a morning person, but unlike me he does not bother to hide it. He is fifteen, or sixteen, or seventeen, and is one of a rare but precious group of young people in their late teens who are still very connected with Church. He serves on the altar but he is not pious – he is a normal lad who has been out, often, until the late hours of Saturday morning, But he is there, each Sunday, and not only because of his mother’s insistence. As a Priest I have been on retreat with many young people like James, and when he speaks deeply then there is a level of sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond his years. He is the sort of boy who can stand in Lourdes, just feet from the grotto, and ask, “What if Bernadette made it all up, Father? What if she was a liar?” Partly he’ll be asking to make a point to his friends, but mainly he’ll be asking because he does want to know something about the truth of faith, and he is searching, and discovering, and he wants someone who can give him decent answers. As a Priest young people like James give me energy and keep me fresh. I love the questions they ask and the fact that they are not afraid to ask them. It is important to me that they have an active and strong voice and a place within the Parish community.

Sarah is a mother of two or three children. She could be James’ mum, but probably her children are a bit younger, and they are at the point of asking her a lot of questions about their faith, including and especially what is the point of coming to Mass. Sarah’s response to this has been to throw herself into parish life – she is the lead catechist for Holy Communion, on the Parish Social Committee. She is energetic, in her early forties, and has the kind of energy that the Parish really needs. Her enthusiasm has brought her children along with her, but she will often have a quiet word, sharing her worries about them and their future. I have been in two fairly tough areas as a Priest – Walthamstow and Basildon – and the brilliance of these sorts of areas is that people speak their mind. Someone like Sarah matters to me not just for the energy and talents she brings, and the way she involves others, but also because when I get things wrong she will tell me. She is kind about it, but she makes her point. She will also take time to affirm, after a good sermon, or a good Parish event: feedback from people like Sarah has really helped me within Priesthood.

Frank comes to Mass every so often, but more usually he telephones, just for a chat. He is depressed and life has dealt him a pretty tough hand. He has been through alcoholism and managed to kick that, but along the way he has lost many friends. He sometimes rings quite late into the evening, and just needs a listening ear. In amongst all the troubles of his life, his faith has been the one constant thread, and even at his most depressed he still asks for prayers and is never once angry with God.

To be a Diocesan Priest has, for me, been a journey of constant discovery. Margaret, James, Sarah, Frank and so many countless others form the parish community, and they look to their Priests as a strength, hope and support, rooted in their faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit through the grace of Ordination. Sometimes – often – I am conscious of how unworthy I am of the trust they put in me. “Who am I to be a Priest?” is a question that many people thinking of Priesthood have asked me in the last few years. In one way, of course, none of us is fit for Priesthood, none of us is fit to stand “in the person of Christ” and pronounce the words of Institution, “This is my body … this is my blood.” And yet, of course, if Christ is actually calling us then we are cannot but be worthy of that call. He has never called perfect people – look at Peter. So I know I am not worthy, I trust that I am called, and I live Priesthood.

Each day is different – that’s a bit of a cliché but it is true. In fact, it is deeper than that, because moments of each day are different, and require a change of tone, pace and prayer that is probably unique to the Diocesan Priesthood. About six years ago I prayed a Requiem Mass for a thirty four year old man who had committed suicide. The church was full, the congregation young, and the grief tangible. I went from the graveside to the Primary school, where the year six leavers were getting ready for their end of year Mass and where there was the usual happy chaos of children’s joyful celebration. Neither the grieving family nor the year six pupils could know where else I had been that day – it would have been entirely inappropriate. So to be a Diocesan Priest means getting used to such “gear changes” and trusting that God will help me to find strength, sometimes, that is beyond anything that I can manage on my own.

Diocesan priesthood has let me use my gifts and talents, and supported me in my weaknesses. I was inspired as a young adult by the story of the life and work of St John Bosco, a Priest in Turin who helped young people in difficult circumstances to really live their potential. As a Diocesan Priest I was privileged to be asked to be Director of the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service. Within the BCYS the most precious and memorable moments were always those when an experience was offered – in Lourdes, at Aylesford, in the Holy Land or at World Youth Day – when something just “clicked” for a young person. It may have been a truth of faith, or the lifting of a burden through Reconciliation or in conversation; it may have been a new insight into prayer. Those moments were absolutely golden moments of Priesthood. Now that I am based in a Parish it is a real delight to be working with others to create positive and proactive programmes for young people of all ages, helping them to see that they are most definitely part of the Church, and listening to them to discover what they most need and hope for from the local Church.

Along the way, I have discovered new talents – in organisation, leading but always walking with those involved to create better solutions than if it had been left to me alone. I have been involved in a massive building project - £250,000 worth of refurbishment – and at times felt a little more like a construction manager than a Priest, but then remembered what it was all for (in this case, upgrading facilities for young people that were in desperate need of repair). And I have relished the joy and challenge of preaching in many and varied contexts – from a mountainside in Lourdes to the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Personally, it is preaching that most connects me to Scripture. Considering what I will say in a homily leads me to consider the context of those I am preaching to, and spurs me to find the right images, the right words, to lift the Gospel off the page. Preparing a weekend homily is where I do some of my deepest reflecting. Preaching, as with every other part of what I do as a Priest, only makes sense when it is rooted in prayer, and I find the weekly – or daily – readings a very helpful springboard into prayer. As I prepare a sermon, I picture the congregation – picture people like Margaret, Frank, James and Sarah. What is the Gospel saying to them? Does the Gospel illuminate a particular piece of Church teaching, and can I make it accessible in a seven minute homily? What is the context of the Gospel in its own time, and what bearing does that have on the language or images used by the Gospel writer? Recently I went to the Holy Land, and seeing, touching, tasting and walking the places where Jesus lived, worked and prayed gave some further wonderful insights into the Bible landscape.

To finish these reflections, I know that I don’t do any of this on my own. There is the strength of faith, and there is human support: the Diocese brought together those of us who had been Ordained at around the same time twice a year for the first five years after Ordination, and that was a tremendous help in those years. Before and during seminary and Priesthood I have been blessed with wonderful, honest, insightful friends – some are Catholic, of whom some are Priests; some of my friends are not Catholic at all. In all of them, I have found support when I have faced particular struggles and problems: it is evidently an essential part of Priesthood – as of life – to have good friends.

I hope that these words have given you a flavour of Diocesan Priesthood: elsewhere on this website you will find daily blogs from fourteen Priests and seminarians of the Diocese. I encourage you to read them, and to discover more deeply the rich tapestry of Priesthood in the Diocese of Brentwood. If you are reading this as part of your own discernment to vocation, I pray that you find points within it that resonate with your own passions and strengths, and wish you the very best as you continue to discern.

Fr Dominic