Acknowledge past, give authentic witness and Irish vocations will flourish says cardinal for clergy

Acknowledge past, give authentic witness and Irish vocations will flourish says cardinal for clergy Cardinal Lazzaro You Heung-sik stands with Rector of Knock Shrine Fr Richard Gibbons (left), and Msgr Eamonn McLaughlin, adjunct under-secretary of the Formation Office of the Dicastery for the Clergy.
Many loud voices calling for married priests do not promote priesthood at home, Cardinal Lazzaro You Heung-sik tells Chai Brady


In Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations 2023 he compared a vocation to a “divine seed that springs up in the soil of our existence, opens our hearts to God and to others, so that we can share with them the treasure we ourselves have found”.

The divine seed that grows priests may seem to be sewn fewer and farther between to those hoping and praying for more vocations to the priesthood in Ireland.

For almost a year there has been a major push for vocations to diocesan priesthood run by the Council for Vocations of the Irish bishops’ conference. While the vocations crisis has affected everyone, overall dioceses have been suffering more than religious orders.

Some 15 students began formal seminary studies for the priesthood for Ireland’s 26 dioceses in September 2023. Just nine students entered seminary studies in 2022, while six entered in 2021.


In this context came the ‘Year for Vocations to the Diocesan Priesthood’, which began on Vocations/Good Shepherd Sunday, April 30 last year. On the theme ‘Take the Risk for Christ’, it saw a host of events take place across Ireland aiming to start conversations within families, with priests and in parish communities regarding the vocation of priesthood.

One of the last events of the promotion year was organised for Knock, Co. Mayo earlier this month. The Diocesan Vocation Director’s Conference took place from March 7-8 and saw dozens of vocations directors from across Ireland descend on the national marian shrine for a conference which was addressed by Vatican heavyweight Cardinal Lazzaro You Heung-sik, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy.

Sitting down with The Irish Catholic in Knock House Hotel, Cardinal You immediately began by speaking glowingly of the Church in Ireland and its missionaries, highlighting the Irish Columbans martyred in his home country of South Korea during the Korean war.

Currently there are more than 80 modern day martyrs the Church in Korea is promoting for beatification”

The cardinal said: “First and foremost I would like to express my gratitude to the Church in Ireland, to the Irish missionaries who came to bring the Faith, to evangelise in Korea. They were extraordinary missionaries. Several of these Irish missionaries, during the war in Korea, they lost their lives for the mission.

“We are, at this moment in time, working on the beatification cause of many of those martyrs, among them are some [three] of the Irish missionaries, the Columban Fathers. They were martyred in my diocese of Daejeon and their bodies are laid to rest in our diocesan graveyard. It has been my first time to Ireland, and to meet the bishops, the priests, deacons, seminarians, and lay people involved in caring for priestly vocations in Ireland. I am deeply moved I am here and that I am meeting the Irish,” he said.

Currently there are more than 80 modern day martyrs the Church in Korea is promoting for beatification. Seven Irish Columbans, and one Irish-American Columban, were martyred during the Korean war.

The question of vocations in Ireland cannot be broached without facing the reality of “the abuse that took place” in Ireland by members of the clergy, Cardinal You insisted, “we can’t hide from it”.


“The Church must be sincere before the Lord and before humanity. There’s an importance in asking forgiveness honestly, from the heart, and that there were priests who did abuse and that you had those in responsibility who did not respond as they should have,” he said.

However, the prelate added that “we must not forget also of the great heroism among the many priests and religious in this land. The media, a lot of the time, is focused on the negatives, only presenting the negative face of the Church and did not look at the positive face also”.

“As a result of what happened, also of the constant negative reporting on the Church, the consequence was that many laypeople have distanced themselves from the Church. We must humbly ask for forgiveness and confront reality, but we must move forward together, to be the Church that God wants us to be. Pope Francis exhausts himself in insisting that we need to get back to the Church envisioned by Christ.

“And so, the bad fruits that were there have also had an impact on vocations to the priesthood, religious and diocesan, and religious sisters. It is a great difficulty that the Church has to overcome in order to move forward. This drives us home to the realisation of the centrality of the role of the lay faithful.”

No Christian is a foreigner in the Church, it is our Church, all of us are children of God”

During his pontificate Pope Francis has made synodality the name of the game, tackling a more clerical way of decision making within the Church and calling lay people to live out their baptismal calling and become more involved. In the western world there is no doubt the Church will become more lay-led as vocations decline.

Touching on this, Cardinal You said that “the Church is not reduced to bishops, priests, or religious men or women but also includes the laity, and families and together we make up the Church and together we walk forward… We all have different roles but we are all Christians, which means that we are all called to live the word of God. What does that mean to live the Word of God? It means to love God and to love our neighbour. This is the synodal Church.

“No Christian is a foreigner in the Church, it is our Church, all of us are children of God. The Church in Ireland has had a wonderful history in many respects, and so putting everything in context and while acknowledging the reality of our past and where we are today, we must look to the future, and walk together.

“And so the decision on the part of the bishops to dedicate this year of prayer to vocations for diocesan priesthood is a wonderful initiative, for us it is important to pray, but a real prayer life is a life that gives witness. So my message to the bishops, to the priests, (to deacons) and to seminarians is that we have a responsibility to bear witness to Christ…When the youth see the witness, the beauty, the gift, the greatness that is the priesthood, then in turn they will be attracted to that authentic witness,” Cardinal You said, adding: “I am convinced that if we as Christians lived the Word of God concretely, we would have a flourishing of vocations.”

In the Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-2023, which brought together synodal discussions from parish to diocesan level across Ireland, “there were calls from both younger and older participants” to allow priests to marry.

Asked about the support for married priests, particularly in the context of being an answer to the crisis in vocations, Cardinal You pointed to the Orthodox Church. He said: “If that were the case, take for example the Orthodox Church, they would be flourishing in terms of vocations, but we have to look at the reality. I say to the lay faithful to have more children and to promote vocations in their families and among their children.”


He continued: “Not wanting to cause any controversy obviously, but there are those who are shouting aloud, their voices are quite loud in the public forum, and they would not be stepping up to encourage their son or their daughter to pursue a religious life.”

Another crisis not just for vocations to the priesthood but for societies across Europe is the huge decrease in birth rates. Ireland’s fertility rate sits at 1.7 babies per woman as of 2022 figures – well below the population replacement level of 2.1.

Cardinal You is familiar with the issue, considering South Korea is facing the same problem, albeit far more acutely. As of 2023, South Korea now has the lowest birthrate in the world standing at 0.72.

Asked about this, the cardinal answered: “It’s a great difficulty, a great concern. But we are all called to be the family of the Church and there is a great hope that we live our Faith, that we be authentic Catholics.

“It’s important as we are growing up that we a nourished, it takes patience, it takes years and it takes time, it’s the same thing with vocations, we must nurture them, we must promote them and we must do everything we can to promote vocations to the priesthood.”

Those joining the priesthood in recent times are faced with a totally different society than many of the priests who were ordained three or four, or more, decades ago. Last year a study conducted by The Catholic Project, a research group at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., found that self-described ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ priests have all but disappeared from the youngest cohorts of priests and that priests describing themselves as ‘conservative/orthodox’ reached more than 80% among those ordained after 2020.

The study used survey responses from 3,516 priests across 191 dioceses and eparchies in the United States.

Regarding a potential divide in thought between young and more senior priests, Cardinal You said: “Whether it be a young priest or a more senior priest, all of us need to do an examination of conscience, do I give a good witness to the people? Because of a lack of witness, there is a consequential lack of vocations to the priesthood. Whether it be young priests or more senior priests, if they are not giving a good example, who is going to follow them?

The Lord does not give the grace for the past, he gives it for the present. The Lord cannot give grace for the future, it has not come to pass”

“The dream would be, and should be, that there is a common house for priests, to come together and support each other, whether it be the young priests or the more senior priests – for the priests to be in community, not isolated.”

More generally, Cardinal You added: “The past is the past, the Lord does not give the grace for the past, he gives it for the present. The Lord cannot give grace for the future, it has not come to pass. The Lord gives us the grace for here and now.”

Ireland’s Year for Vocations to the Diocesan Priesthood concludes on April 21, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The day it began in 2023 marked the 60th anniversary of the initiation of the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, instituted by St Pope Paul VI in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council.

Bishop Phonsie Cullinan of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore, who is Chairman for the Council for Vocations of the bishops’ conference, also spoke to The Irish Catholic in Knock.

“We have been very privileged throughout this year to have had so many events. Very many of them small that is true, but yet at the same time, connecting with people, getting the message out there…” the bishop said, adding that he hopes the momentum of the year promoting diocesan vocations will continue.


Bishop Phonsie is filled with hope for vocations and the future of the priesthood in Ireland, saying: “We have the example of very tragic events in this country where people, when they came up against the mystery of death and suffering, turned to the priest. We think of the tragedies around the country, I won’t name them because they are very painful things for people, but we saw the centrality of the work of the priest, because up against the mystery of death, where do we turn to? We turn to Christ, we turn to his Church for solace, for peace, for meaning.

“And in my own interactions with young people, I see the pain and the suffering, there is a huge level of addiction, trouble with gambling, relationship issues, self-harming, depression and I believe as a society we are not really tackling these things at their base. We’re saying things like we need more counsellors… but I think it’s much deeper than that, I think the cry of young people is a legitimate response to their lack of sense of meaning, lack of a sense of a love of God in their lives, lack of a sense of the reality of sin and death and the answer to this is being offered to us, it’s being proposed to us by Jesus and that’s just not a nice theological phrase thrown out there, I believe it’s true, I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and he is offering us something which is priceless.”

He added: “I really do believe that right now there are a lot of young people out there – and they are the curious generation – who are looking around and they are asking ‘What is going to work for me?’ And it is my hope that there are people of Faith all around the country who are offering, who are proposing, an answer to their questions in the person of Jesus himself. The priesthood is essential for the Church.”

Relaying an anecdote, he concluded: “I remember the question being asked to the former papal nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo, who gave a talk in Waterford, and somebody asked him about vocations… and he said that ‘the Lord will send enough priests’. I thought it was an interesting answer. We will get the priests that we pray for, that we really strive to get, that it is up to all of the Church, to pray for and promote priesthood. I am full of hope.”

There are those who are shouting aloud, their voices are quite loud in the public forum, and they would not be stepping up to encourage their son or their daughter to pursue a religious life”