4th Sunday of Easter

Dear Sisters and Brothers

They say it is a sign of age when policemen look younger and younger. If that is the case, I am not sure how to interpret a remark made to me at the end of the Mass of Chrism during Holy Week. Looking at all the priests gathered together for the celebration – fine body of men that they are – someone turned to me and remarked, “There’s a lot more grey hairs around these days!” I would say there is no arguing with that point. In fact, it was confirmed very clearly when I looked at the statistical profile of diocesan trends for the next ten years.

We have 70 + parishes and, as of this moment, 86 priests of which 24 are retired, leaving 62 active priests working. However by September this year there will be 30 retired leaving 56 priests in active ministry. My simple conclusion is that we have fewer priests in active ministry than in the recent past. This does have immediate practical implications for us all: we certainly cannot continue to run parishes the way we have done so far. The presumed norm, that there will be a priest to look after every parish, is no longer possible. Some churches will have to share the services of one priest with another church and in some instances it may be three churches or even more. This situation will continue for the foreseeable future, at least if the statistical analysis is accurate. It is suggested that in ten years we will have 45 priests in active ministry in the diocese. Personally I think that this is a very generous estimation looking at the average age of our clergy and the number of vocations we are producing in our diocese.

I hope I am not alarming you. The reason why I am telling you these things is neither to alarm nor frighten you. We need to know the facts of the matter. Paul and Barnabas in the first reading discovered their plans were frustrated, but despite that “they were filled with joy and Holy Spirit”. Why? I think because they had a real trust in God’s providence for them and they also believed that it was God’s plan in which they were cooperating and sharing. Like St John in the reading from Apocalypse they could confess: “The Lamb…will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.” They believed that despite all the obstacles in their way they were in God’s providential hands and his plan for the world would be fulfilled. I believe this too, with all my heart and soul, as I am sure you do. Jesus’ word to us in today’s gospel is not a false promise but it is life-giving and true: “I know them (the sheep that belong to me) and they follow me. I give them life; they will never be lost.”

When the Bishops of England and Wales met with the Holy Father in January he said: “…since the priest plays an irreplaceable role in the life of the Church, spare no effort in encouraging priestly vocations and emphasising to the faithful the true meaning and necessity of the priesthood.” This is the real reason I am writing to you today. It is important for us to understand that there can be no room for complacency about the need for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Neither can we allow ourselves to entertain the idea that somehow vocations will come from somewhere else, let alone the thought that we can manage without them! While promoting and encouraging all vocations in the life of the Church, we must not neglect to do the same for the vocation to the priesthood and religious life. Every one of us has to be a vocation promoter, a vocation encourager both in prayer and action. If we need an interpretation of our present situation let it be to spur us into urgent action and to create a climate where vocations to the priesthood and religious life are seen as good, and wonderful and vital in the life of the Church. I know it is a cliché, but it is worth repeating, “your priest is somebody’s son, your son could be somebody’s priest.”

Don’t forget, though, we are all in God’s loving hands. It is his church, his plan in which we share; and may the words of today’s psalm give us real strength, comfort and encouragement: “Know that He, the Lord, is God, He made us, we belong to Him, we are His people, the sheep of His flock.”

And so we pray:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, though your people walk in the valley of darkness, no evil should they fear; for they follow in faith the call of the shepherd whom you have sent for their hope and their strength. Attune our minds to the sound of his voice, lead our steps in the path he has shown, that we may know the strength of his outstretched arm and enjoy the light of your presence for ever.

Yours in the joy of the Holy Spirit

+ Terence Patrick Drainey

Bishop of Middlesbrough