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IEC Day 4 - Noreen Carroll: 'Priesthood: Gift and Mystery'

June 13, 2012
Below you will find the official text for Noreen Carroll's personal testimony.
Good afternoon.  My name is Noreen Carroll. I am a retired Primary school teacher having spent all of my professional life in Primary education.  For the final 17 years of my career I was Principal of a large Catholic girls’ primary school in Johnstown parish near Cabinteely, Co. Dublin.  I am a mother of two adult children who are both married and I have six wonderful grand children.  I am also widowed and since retiring I have worked voluntarily in various capacities in my parish of Foxrock in South Dublin. During the eighties I was privileged to work as a teacher for three years in Lesotho in Southern Africa.
As a Catholic teacher in a Catholic school and particularly during preparations for First Holy Communion and Confirmation, I was always deeply aware of the role played by the family, school and parish in the faith formation and religious education of  young children.  Working in close partnership with home and parish was a central objective of the religious education programme and every effort was made to promote links with priests and parents and to support parents in their work as first educators of their children.
I give  you this brief outline of  my life story to begin with as it will help to give  you a context and background to understand what I am now about to share with you.  The title of my testimony is:  Priesthood:  Gift and Mystery.  I will talk about my own experiences of the work, example, giftedness and compassion of the many faithful and committed priests  whom  I have had the privilege of meeting and knowing  and who through their ministry have shown me the presence of God.  These priests have, in their own unique ways, helped me on my faith journey.  They have strengthened my belief in God and have given me hope in times of darkness.  Many of them would not even be aware of the effects of their words,  their actions,  their example or witness on this struggling Christian, so if any of them are present here today, my testimony should reassure them that God is truly with them and that their life of service is a precious gift to all of us.  The way in which  each priest makes Christ present to all of us who seek God is the great mystery of priesthood.
On the night before He died, Jesus, the great high priest, instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders or priesthood,  in order to  leave to the world a successive line of priests, who would continue the work that He had started. Just as Jesus had done, the priest would teach the Good News, would forgive sins, would baptise, would be a source of love, peace and healing to his flock and above all would have the power to make Christ really present to the followers of Christ in the Eucharist.  Christ lives in the priest through his faithfulness in Christ. The ordained priesthood is God’s special gift to all of us.
In his message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations in 2010, the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the ministry of the priest as ” a man of communion, open to all, capable of gathering into one the pilgrim flock which the goodness of the Lord has entrusted to him, helping to overcome divisions, to heal rifts, to settle conflicts and misunderstandings, and to forgive offences.” (Message for Vocation Sunday, 2010)
All this may be well known to most of us listening here this afternoon but I mention it so that we can remind ourselves of the unique and  special role of the priest in our community or parish.  St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, the patron saint of priests,  says of priesthood and I quote “ Without the priest, the passion and death of  our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption here on earth. What use would be a house full of gold, if there were no one to open its doors?”.  He also said of priesthood that “It is the love of the heart of Christ.”
The role of the priest within the parish is to make Christ really present to us in the Holy  Eucharist through the celebration of Mass. When we attend our daily or Sunday Mass, it is the priest through the power given to Him at ordination who makes it possible for us to experience the Real Presence of Jesus.   The priest also proclaims the Word of God and  helps us to understand God’s message for us  for our daily lives.  This can and should involve challenging us to live Christian lives and to reflect on our beliefs and actions. The priest follows in the footsteps of Christ, walking the journey with us, being with the faithful in their sacramental life, baptizing, confirming,  forgiving sins, witnessing and blessing marriages and administering to the sick and dying.
Throughout my life I have been especially blessed to have met  with  priests who have shown a commitment to that ministry  and mission, working  to grow the kingdom of God in their appointed  parishes.  During my primary school days in a small rural school in Co. Tipperary, I clearly remember the weekly visits of the young priest who loved to pose difficult scriptural and theological questions of us the senior pupils. These questions were put in a spirit of broadening our knowledge and challenging our thinking, and because there was a prize for the best answer, they were eagerly awaited every week. On one of these visits he asked: ‘How do we know that God wants us to confess our sins to the priest?’. You must realise that this was a time of rote learning of catechism questions and this was not one that we had learnt or heard of.  However, in our eagerness to win the weekly prize, we pondered the question and after many minutes silence and no apparent bright answers, I suddenly had an inspired guess and offered my opinion. I had recalled the scripture passage that told the story of  how Jesus gave His Apostles the power to forgive sins in which it said: “whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven and whose sins you shall retain they are retained“.  From this I deduced that if we are to know if ours sins are forgiven or retained we needed to tell them to God’s representative on earth, that is, the priest.  Imagine my excitement when I won the prize that day! That priest continued to inspire us through his own sense of commitment to knowing and living the Word of God. I owe a deep sense of gratitude to him for enkindling in me a lifelong search for truth, justice and God himself.
A few years ago, at  a Sunday morning Mass, in my parish Church, the celebrant  began his homily by proclaiming and I quote “ God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it”. This was followed by a pause and then he repeated the sentence.  The power of that statement made me sit up and as he continued to explain God’s unconditional and enduring love for each one of us, I realized that something profound and life-changing was happening to me.  I should have known this long before then but having been brought up in an atmosphere where God was presented as someone to be feared and where God’s love was really for those who lived exemplary lives, I found it difficult to convince myself of its truth.  However, on that Sunday morning, the impact of the opening line of the homily left me in no doubt, for the first time in my life, that God loved me for who I am.  That liberating  truth has had a very profound influence on my life since then.
Just over 14 years ago on a dark, January evening, I received the devastating  news that my beloved husband had suddenly collapsed and died. He had returned to work that morning feeling rested and relaxed after the Christmas holidays.  In the hours following, while family and friends shared our incredible shock and pain,  our local priest offered to take my son, daughter and I to the hospital where the body lay.  When my distraught daughter felt she could not enter that room, her fear and shock were so overwhelming, that same  priest placed a hand on her shoulder and quietly said something to all of us.   Miraculously a calm descended on us and suddenly we were all able to cope with a  very distressing situation.  When I asked him later what had he said or done he said “Noreen, I really did nothing”  but  I know that it was through the presence of that priest that the  peace of Christ had entered that room and helped us to cope.
I also had the joyful experience of witnessing young guests at my daughter’s wedding shake the hand of the celebrant, and thank him for making the celebration of the Eucharist so meaningful for them.  This priest had clearly made a connection through the grace and power of God with a group of young people who on the face of it were not regular Mass attendees but  in whom God’s love still worked.  This same priest continues to minister with an extraordinary giftedness to families and young people, who are the future of our Church.
In the week prior to St. Patrick’s Day  I attended morning Mass in my local Church. A large group of young children from the local school had also come with their teachers to be part of the congregation and to commemorate the school’s patron saint.  The celebrant interacted with the pupils during the homily keeping their attention and they were clearly taking in all that was being explained to them.  Then, after Holy Communion and before the final blessing, he asked them to sit quietly, close their eyes and imagine that Jesus was saying  thank you to them.  He then asked them to think about this question: “For what do you think Jesus is thanking you?” As an adult member of the congregation, I found this exercise a most powerful insight into my relationship with God.  I can only imagine the miracles that took place in the hearts of those young children.
I could list many more examples of selfless ministry and joyful witness to God’s love  that I have experienced or seen.  I have listened to and been uplifted and inspired by well-prepared and challenging homilies.  I have had my knowledge of the Bible expanded  by priests who were biblical scholars.  I have been privileged to work alongside priests  whose  musical giftedness enhanced the liturgies of the parish;  priests gifted in youth ministry; in reaching out to others within the community and other parishes less fortunate than our own; or the priests who responded with love to the new needs of parish in recent years. I’m  sure each one of you here today has your own very special moments when you felt the power of God through  the actions or words of a priest. We thank God for all of them and pray that He continues to send many more priests like them to minister to all our spiritual needs.
While that has been the experience for a very great many of us, we must acknowledge that all of these exemplary priests together with our parish communities have been shocked and devastated by recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse of young children within our Catholic church. Faithful priests have felt devastated, let down and despondent by the terrible actions of some of their colleagues, while they are left to face bad press, dwindling numbers in church, a serious decline in vocations to priesthood and,  in my opinion, very little real emotional support from within hierarchical structures. Many priests are fortunate to have close family support which can help them through this dark time but many good priests suffer alone and their sadness  is great. As a Church and  people of God, we must be conscious of how difficult the priestly ministry is in present times. As a faith community we know that without the priest there is no Eucharist, so we  need to be pro-active in ensuring that those of our priests still in ministry are encouraged, affirmed and supported.  We can do this in many ways.  Firstly, by prayer, asking God to give them a renewed energy, courage and perseverance to continue to serve their communities with joy and prayerfulness. We can be active members of our own parish communities sharing our own giftedness with our faith family.  And, above all, we can support our priests in the ways we support family members and friends, by affirming their efforts, recognizing their giftedness and understanding their shortcomings.  I would appeal to bishops, as the Shepherds of their diocesan flocks, and to all those who hold leadership roles within our beloved Mother Church to support in whatever ways possible, even if that means creating new structures, the emotional and psychological wellbeing and the religious formation of all priests who struggle on a daily basis to be bearers of Christ’s message of love to their people.  Lumen Gentium refers to the relationship between the bishop and his priests when it says “let priests sincerely look upon the bishops as their father and reverently obey him. And let the bishop regard his priests as his co-workers and as sons and friends just as Christ called his disciples friends not servants.”  It is in the spirit of these words of Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict xvi, that real support for committed priesthood should be witnessed by us the laity.
In the midst of the darkness we  remember the promise Jesus made to the Apostles after His Death when they felt afraid and bereft in the upper room. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide them all of their days. That promise is as real today as it was then and it is that promise that must give all of us, priests and people alike, the hope that God will continue to be  with His church.  We must be open to the Holy Spirit working within each one of us and try to discern what God is saying to us about priesthood in today’s world. We continue to pray for vocations to priesthood. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI  “Prayer is the first form of witness which awakens vocations”.   Above all we hope that  the witness of  priests who are faithful to their mission will encourage other young people to follow in their footsteps.
The future of the Catholic Church must lie with the good priests and good people who want to live out the Gospel message of Faith, hope and love, led by their bishop as shepherd and teacher. Lay members of the parish, working with their priests, and priests working with their communities, respecting, acknowledging and supporting each other in their respective roles in the work of spreading God’s kingdom can once again be the model of Church that Christ intended it to be.  Together we can with honesty and hope face the future where the example of service, dedication, commitment and mission will convince those around us that this is the true Church, the Church founded by Christ Himself.
Finally, a story is told of a parish priest who arrived in his new parish and proceeded to set up a parish council and several ministries and groups within the parish. During all of this he kept asking the people involved, to tell him what his role should be, in this active parish full of lay involvement, but nobody was coming forward with an answer. Finally, he insisted on getting an answer and when it came it went like this “Father, all we need is that you be with us”.  He now knew that he held a unique role in their community.  He would be with them in all that they did, and he would journey with them.  He would bring Christ to them and “draw them to respond to the universal call to holiness”. (Message of the Pope Benedict XVI for the 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations 2010). The most powerful witness that a priest can give is to be with his flock gathering and uniting them. He is the one who has the specific task of serving other Christians in their discernment and living out of God’s call so that “according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church” (Lumen gentium, 33).   So to all of the priests present here today and to all priests who continue to  radiate the joy of serving Christ  to so many people, I say, “Fathers, all we need is that you continue to be with us”.

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