Thoughts of Fr. Vincent Sherlock; which I think are very well worded and most enjoyable to read:-
The murder of Lyra McKee in Derry, like many others, I looked at her letter to her “14 year old self”. It was an amazing letter and a wonderful piece of videography. She was looking back at her life from the perspective of age and experience and encouraging the uncertainty she felt in her earlier years. She certainly had a wonderful ability to express herself that maybe eluded the 14-year old at the time she most needed it.
Thirty-two years ago today, I was ordained in Gurteen Church. For thirty-two years I have had the privilege of being a priest of the Diocese of Achonry and, all things considered, have enjoyed my life very much. Not wishing to steal Lyra’s words or sentiments, but wanting to share a few thoughts here today, I thought I might borrow her theme …..
Dear 24 Year-Old Self,
As you travel to Gurteen with one of your brothers and your parents, you feel gratitude but also a touch of nervousness you had not expected. You always hoped this day would come and now that it has, you’re happy about that but you know that you didn’t waken that morning and reach for your breviary or spend a lot of time in prayer. Something in you is saying that should have happened. Yes, there was a lot to do and the days were busy but on your ordination day, you’d like to have felt more “holy” and less worldly. You look at your father and mother and see the smiles and the joy that comes so naturally to them. The black suit and collar sit well and you feel at home in them, maybe even protected by them but hopefully you know now, even if you didn’t know then, that they are not the full story. A girl in Marks & Spencers will make that clear to you in time. No, you don’t know her and will only meet her once but what she says will matter. We will come back to that …
The church is filling with people and, even though it’s your Parish Church, it’s not the church you attended with your family as a boy and during your time in Maynooth. Cloonloo was your church – the “half-parish” as it was called, and you always felt very much at home there. Do you remember the day you wrote on a small piece of paper and asked God to make you a priest? You folded that piece of paper and “posted” it through the little opening in the back of the Altar in St Joseph’s. Chances are it’s still there. Gurteen was a bigger church though and this was a big day – so many people coming to share it with you. You will remember them from time to time: Mattie and Mae Callaghan (your Godmother), Alfie and Mel Gallagher who had always been such good friends of your parents, Tom and Mary Fox, Seán, Madge and all the Tahenys, Frank and Maureen O’Neill, Mick and Anne McKeon, Bernard and Eileen McDonnell – yes, you will think of these and so many other people from time to time, not least as some of them enter Eternity but they will always have a place in your heart. They were proud of you – proud that you were becoming a priest. You will need to remember that because, in time, you will find out that everybody doesn’t share their joy in your priesthood or in priesthood at all. You will remember your relations too, and how much they mean to you. There are priests there – so many who have been part of your life and you feel a homeliness about them and being with them. Without knowing it, many of them, brought you to this day. In the main, you will keep contact with them all through the years and shed a few tears as some of them too, enter the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Later that day, you will hear your father say that he is not a man for many words and, though you might not realise it at the time, you will know that he spoke from his heart. He will stifle back a tear, clear a lump in his throat and say “This is my happiest day ever” and you will know that he means it. You will never forget he said it and you will try to make him happy. The day he dies, you will walk into a room in the Hospice where, thankfully he has spent only a few days, and you will look at him and he at you, as your family says the Rosary and he will die. Your niece will say: “He waited for you Vinnie”, and he will. You will sit between your father and mother and feel their joy and know that your mother is thinking of “Fr Casey” through whom she prayed decades for decades. She will thank God that maybe her son might mean as much to some family as Fr Casey meant to hers following her father’s death when she was only seven years old. She may never say this to you – well not in those exact words, but you will come to know the truth of them and know that her love and respect for priests came from the lived experience of being helped by one when help was most needed. There are days when this will give you the strength you need – even if you haven’t reached for the breviary or woken up feeling more holy than worldly. This memory will help you celebrate your mother’s Funeral Mass too, knowing that she would want it no other way.
You will enjoy parish life and come to know people well in places like Carracastle and Rooskey, Collooney and Ballinacarrow, in Galway, Ballaghaderreen, Monsasteraden, in Brusna and Derrinacartha. People there will welcome you and you will have the chance to share some of the happiest and most difficult days of their lives. You will return to Kilmovee, having spent a few months there in those early days, and come to know it a-new, alongside Urlaur, Glann and Kilkelly. There will be another side to your life too – that side that takes you to Long Island and to the parish of Rockville Centre and you will enjoy that, not least the chance it gives you to visit your aunt and to meet friends who will mean very much to you through the years.
Twenty-Four Year Old Self, it all sounds so good but sadly there will be much darkness too. Clouds will loom over you for different reasons – some personal but many of them to do with the church in whose name you are to be ordained. Within a few years, much will change and many of the experiences you share with others will be around hurt and shame about things that have happened. There will be a lot of hostility and days will come when you cannot bring yourself to read another newspaper article or watch the evening news. Days will come when the life you live will be turned on its head and people’s confidence is shattered. Yours too. You will feel the hurt people feel and regret all that has happened. There are times when you too will feel hurt, as the priesthood you believe in – the God you believe in and the Church through which you try to live your life, are all misunderstood, belittled and ridiculed. You could not have seen this on that June Day. Few could.
You will question your own life and the answers won’t always be easy to accept but somehow you will find enough reminders to let you know you made the right choice and that the little folded piece of paper lying, most likely dust-covered, in the depths of Cloonloo’s Altar, contain the right words – the only words – by which you could try to live your life: “Make me a priest.” You will realise that those words are as real today as they were when you wrote them and that, each day, you must ask God to “make you a priest” because the priesthood needs to be baked a-fresh each day. You will come to know that. It is not something you put on you and that’s that. Rather it is a daily call to be the best you can be – to do what you can do – to be.
You will learn that you have few of the answers that you once thought you had and that the questions are different than you could ever imagine. Time will soften your attitude too, and that’s a good thing. You will become less judgemental and more understanding and realise that even the black suit can be swapped on days for other colours – you will discover that, apart from Sligo’s colours, few things in life are black and white. You will realise that’s a good thing. Thankfully too, you will realise that the fundamental truth remains the same and always will – God is Love. You became a priest to do good not bad and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we cause hurt but hopefully never with intent. There is always room for an apology and always gratitude for forgiveness received.
The passing of the years will bring so many changes that you could not possibly imagine. Numbers will fall and vocations will decline. But don’t panic! Think back to that day when you travelled with your brother and parents to Gurteen, knowing that your other brother and his family were in another car and that people were travelling from North, South, East and West, from other countries – from your own townland and Parish, to be with you – to be there for you. There will always be people there for you. You will meet the best of people along the way.
The girl in Marks & Spencers – one day, as you pay for a few items in a shop you never stood in before, she will mention your collar and you will think she’s going to have a go at the Church and at priests. She will say to you: “We never needed you more” – not just you – not even you, but the priesthood and the best of what it has to offer. You will remember her often and as you say thanks to her, she will think you are thanking her for the change she has given you but no – she may never know the depth of your gratitude but you will tell many people – that she reassured you. There will always be people like that.
Listen to them …. God speaks through them. Be thankful.