Guy Willis looks back on the lessons learned from an inspiring vocations conference at St Stephen’s House

If priesthood were a product (bear with me briefly) vocations conferences would be a sort of infomercial. One crucial difference between the two, besides the obvious paucity of the comparison, is that priesthood properly understood is intrinsically attractive to men (Scott Hahn, Many Are Called: Rediscovering the Glory of Priesthood (2010) Doubleday – this book was kindly distributed to attendees by ACS at the end of the conference. It is written from a Roman Catholic perspective and develops an argument for priesthood as a fulfilment of manhood) whereas the advertising executive has to work very hard to sell you something you do not need or want.

We are all aware of the need for vocations to the priesthood and this conference, A‘ Certain Call in Uncertain Times’, supported by the Catholic Societies, aims to help those men who are feeling that God may be calling us in this particular way. It is important to note that other related vocations were also discussed; Brother Steven of the Community of the Resurrection was on hand to give guidance on the religious life and note was made of vocations to the permanent diaconate.

At St Stephen’s House in Oxford twenty-five men gathered to pray, listen, discuss and be inspired. Each of us was at some stage on what was referred to as the journey of vocation’. It is a journey that can often be lonely as few have the opportunity in their day to day lives to meet others who are in a similar position. Some of us came from areas where there are numerous traditional parishes, whereas others were from more isolated situations. To be able to engage in such discussions with others, both lay and ordained (for as we were often reminded, the journey never stops) was a great opportunity. It was also very encouraging to see participants not just from a good number of different dioceses but also from a wide range of backgrounds. This diversity certainly lent a sense of veracity to my own feeling of vocation.

Each day began with morning prayer at 8am in the House Chapel, which was followed by breakfast. A celebration of the Mass in the Church of St John was followed by a hearty lunch. After evening prayer and dinner, we found time to share several gins in the bar and talk at length on church, vocation and other topics. The spaces between these essentials were filled with sessions which covered a number of subjects related to the business of the ordained life; from the practicalities of the discernment process, the nature of priestly sacrifice, chaplaincy, the priest as evangelist and spirituality.

The time spent together was long enough, however, to realize three things. First, there are many catholic men in the Church of England, from many varied walks of life, who are responding seriously to God’s call. This is demonstrated most simply by the fact that this conference was oversubscribed. Second, there appear to be as many different ways of managing the initial stages of discernment as there are dioceses. This presents specific difficulties, especially in understanding what to do next when the process appears to be stalled or delayed. Finally, there are clearly many priests and bishops who are very willing to give their time and advice to foster the vocations of the next generation of pastors. ND