Would you have always described yourself as religious?
Absolutely not. I hated going to Mass or anywhere near the Church. My mother had to bribe me to go to Mass at Christmas and she could never get me to go at Easter or any other time of the year. I say she just managed to get me there for the my First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
What made you decide to join the priesthood?
Well, it started in Transition Year in Secondary School. I made a promise to myself to do as much as I could during that year. Towards the end of the year my principal asked me and another student if we would go to Lourdes that summer with the parish to help push wheelchairs and assist in any other way. I actually thought of not going but my promise to myself came back to me and I said yes. What I encountered in Lourdes was a community who care for one another, young and old, sick and well. They cared and shared this same sense of love and belonging and I liked it. I also had some honest conversations with the Parish Priest while out there. I learnt that just how ordinary he really was but also how much he sacrificed to be a priest, and follow what he felt called to be. Lourdes was a real starting point for me and my journey to having a real faith but also my journey to the priesthood. This question suddenly appeared before me, 'maybe I could be a priest?' When I came back, I continued having that conversation with the priest I met over in Lourdes. We met up every week and I started practicing my faith and asking questions. And this continued for a year, the “maybe I could be a priest”, “maybe I could do this”. I was putting it off, and putting it off, and then there came a moment where it all became too much and I needed to tell someone about it. So, I went to a priest and he said, let’s journey with that. So, we journeyed together for about a year talking about it but eventually I entered in 2010.
Was it difficult in the seminary? Were there people that shouldn’t have been there?
I believe everyone is called to seminary for a reason and whether you become a priest at the end of it, or whether you enter and it’s the biggest mistake of your life, I still believe that something good will come out of it. The biggest thing for me entering was that I was 18 and the oldest in my class was 65. Quite vast. And I was coming from school where we were all the same age. That was the most challenging thing for me.
When I started there was 80 of us living there. You all have your own room. You have to share bathrooms. You basically live together, praying, eating and socialising together. And sometimes that can get a bit much. But at the same time, we are all there with the same goal: to become priests, but not everyone becomes a priest. There are definitely people there that you don’t like; we are not going around loving everyone and thinking everyone is great. There are people you don’t get along with and, you know, that’s life. And living with that is difficult; how do you live with someone you don’t like? But, if we are Christian, we can always not like someone but get on with them. You know there are ways around it. You might be challenging yourself to see past your views on a person, or you might just avoid them.
Was there anytime during your training/ studies that you felt you had made the wrong decision?
Yeah there were moments, where I thought “I need to get out of here.” But someone told me to give it 6 months. And those feelings never lasted 6 months. Now, they lasted a number of weeks and I really hated the place, but at the end of the day, it all came back to “Why was I there, what was the goal?” And I think seminary can be a bit... it is not what priesthood is about. It is a transition period you go through to become a priest. And a lot of what I found difficult was actually just living in the seminary. But that isn't priesthood.
Does it take the full 7 years to become a priest? Once you have your degree what happens then?
It’s 6 or 7 years. Like me, if you enter and you don’t have a degree but you are able to do a degree you do 3 years of philosophy and another subject. So I did philosophy and history for three years over in NUI and not many people knew I was in the seminary. I ended up doing my degree as a normal student really, I just lived in the seminary. After that you start your second degree in theology. Then you start a higher diploma in pastoral theology. After that you go back to your theology degree for two more years and after that you are ordained.
Why do you think it takes so long?
It’s a big decision. The promises we make are final. It’s like the vows you make at a wedding; it’s final. Getting out of them is tough. It's another big decision. They want us to go into this knowing what we are doing. So, we do a lot of practical work during the 7 years as well. I think it’s that long to allow us time and space to decide if we want it. There is also a lot to learn as well.
What have you sacrificed in becoming a priest and what made you give all that up?
I suppose what made me give it up, and this sounds very cliche, but it is God. After all this time of discerning this call, I believe that I wouldn’t be happier. I believe I could be something else, but I believe that this is the path God chose for me, and I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else but this. And so, all the sacrifices I made in the seminary, not going to parties, and living in the seminary (which has its own complications), I think, ultimately are small because my life as a priest makes me happy and that is what I believe in.
Have you always practiced celibacy?
Once you enter the seminary you are expected to remain celibate. Obviously, we all know that is not the case.
Do you find that difficult? Is it something you will always wonder about?
No? The honest answer is, no. It is something I have conversations a lot with my spiritual director and then we also have a human growth counselor, and you’d discuss all that with them. It’s not something I decided and it happened. It is something you have to work on. For me, “Why am I doing it?”, “What is the purpose of me doing it?”, and for me to make that concrete in my head and in my mind, it’s something I work on every day.
You said you hated going to mass with your mother having to bribe you to go, was it safe to say you didn’t believe in a god when you were younger?
I think I believed in a god, I just didn't believe in the Church. I didn’t know the Church. The only thing I knew of the Church was the bad things. And our generation, all we ever heard was the bad things. How the Church did this, how they didn’t do things they could have done better, how they never reported things. All these bad things that the media rightly reported, because there was some terrible things done. And that was all I ever heard and that’s all I ever thought every priest was. Every priest was old, even if they were young, they were always old to me. And I hated religion and when the priest came in I’d be like ‘Oh no, not this man again,’ and I just never got it. And, it wasn't until Lourdes where I saw the Church in action and I saw the priests in action that I saw how people cared for one another. It was only five days but it made a lasting impression on me. I did an interview and some of the comments were, ‘Oh yeah, go to Lourdes and you come back brainwashed.’ and it really wasn’t that, it was a realisation of what the Church actually was.
Do you ever question your beliefs again after you joined the Church?
There are moments, where a tragedy happens and I ask “Where is God in this?” And, if I don’t ask myself this, then I am very blase about my faith. I may not have the answers for people, but I need my answers so I can be there for them in their time.
What made you decide to join the priesthood after all the negative news it has had?
You know, there was lots of toing and froing. And up to two weeks before I was like, “No I’m not going to go in, I can’t do this.” But it really was the priests that I knew. The priests in my parish in Newbridge and all the priests I’ve met through various things, like the Youth Group. The priests I met were honest to god men who had this faith that they lived out in the best way they could. And that was very attractive to me and ultimately I was able to take out all the negative things. At the time 2009/ 2010 the reports came out, but the priests I knew were not like those in the report.
Do you think the Church's view on gay marriage will change?
No, and I don't think it should. We have always taught that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Now, please don't get me wrong, this is not to say that the Church is against gay people or homophobic, we just believe in a sacrament of marriage that is between man and woman.
Obviously we don’t follow the bible word for word, we don’t stone adulterers, or avoid pork and shellfish. Your view has already evolved on homosexuality, so do you not think that your views will continue to evolve to include gay marriage and women priests?
To be honest, I don’t know. I think at the moment Pope Francis is very different. But he is also solid in his saying the issue of women priests is not really an issue. Not that we are against women, and many people think we are against women because we don't allow abortion. We have our beliefs for very good reasons, in depth reasons. And it’s not because we are old fashioned, but at the same time what we need to keep at the forefront of our minds, is that all people are made in the image of God. And whether they be gay, bisexual, transgender, they are made in the image of god and that is what we believe.
Why do you think young people are turning from religion?
That is a tough question, and one that has many different answers. I suppose that religion is now just one thing that people can choose, one of hundreds of ways of living a life. Ireland has changed so much in recent years, which is a good thing, and religion has changed. Tradition has taken very much a back seat as more and more people are growing and leaving behind some of the more traditional aspects of life, such as religion. For me, tradition is not a negative thing but something that needs to be included in our lives. Of course, Ireland and the Catholic Church have had a rather rocky relationship, and many of the scandals of the past have influenced people's, especially young people's, decisions when it comes to religion, and organised religion.
How do you think you can bring the Church into the modern day?
I wouldn't see the need to bring the Church into the modern world. The message of the Church is Jesus Christ and that hasn't changed for over 2,000 years. I think if we continue to engage with people, if we continue to be there for them in times of sadness and happiness, and we continue to stay true to Jesus Christ then we are doing ok!
Photography by Calvin Freeman