Colm Fitzpatrick speaks with the youngest parish priest in Ireland
At a time in Ireland when many young men no longer value religious life as a desirable vocation to pursue, the youngest parish priest in the country is setting an example to the next generation that God is still calling them. Antrim-born Fr Conor McGrath (32) was recently appointed the parish priest of Glenravel and the administrator of The Braid. In addition, he also provides chaplaincy services to schools in Ballymena and St Killian’s College in Carnlough.
The middle child of a family of five, Fr Conor says that he has a “fairly conventional story for a priest” in that he came from a practicing Catholic family.
“My family weren’t overly religious or anything like that – faith was part of who we were in my upbringing, so faith was part and parcel of our daily lives,” he explains, adding that his school life at St Malachy’s College on Belfast’s Antrim Road had a big influence on his decision to become a priest.
“We would have had contact with priests who were staff. I was taught by a number of priests, not just religion but also music and Latin as well. We got to know them on a personal level and to be honest, in the back of my mind priesthood was always present, it was always there,” he says.
During this time, Fr Conor expressed his desire to become a priest with only his closest friends, and they fully supported his choice, with one of them even attending a vocations weekend with him. Likewise, his parents weren’t “overly surprised” when he broke the news that he would be pursuing the priesthood.
Fr Conor studied history and philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, and also trained in St Malachy’s Seminary which closed last year after 185 years of service to trainee priests. He later travelled to the Pontifical College in Rome and was ordained in July 2012 at St Bernard’s Church, Glengormley.
He explains that during his discernment period, there were “personal challenges absolutely” where he doubted whether he was capable of being a priest, but trusted in God to sustain him.
“Basically I just had to put it in God’s hands and ask him to take care of it. It doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly by any stretch of the imagination but I had some wonderful friends along the way and some very supportive clergy as well, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
After his ordination, Fr Conor worked in Antrim and was also a curate in the Parish of Drumbo and Carryduff just prior to his new appointment in Glenravel.
“It’s a great spot [Carryduff], it’s a great parish community…it kind of has a real country feel to it because everybody is from the country and they bring that country outlook on things,” he says.
The diocesan changes were announced in August along with an appeal from Down and Connor’s Bishop Noel Treanor for more young men to consider the religious life.
“Undoubtedly, the increasing age profile of clergy and declining numbers of available priests has created its own challenge in fulfilling the Church’s mission and ministry, a challenge which our clergy respond to on a daily basis with generosity and Faith-filled dedication,” Dr Treanor said.
“I take this opportunity to renew an appeal to pray for more vocations to the diocesan priesthood, to religious life and to the permanent diaconate so that others may join with them as ‘labourers in the harvest’.”
While the declining levels of those practicing the faith and the negative publicity the Church consistently receives has contributed to a significant dearth in Irish vocations being answered, Fr Conor also notes that the world offers an enticing lifestyle that can be at loggerheads with what the priesthood epitomises.
Be brave and once you take the first step towards God, he comes running towards you. You’ll feel his support the whole way along.”
“[The world] does offer an alternative in terms of financial stability or a family, the world does offer that. Priesthood is a sacrifice,” he says, adding that sacrifice is no longer in the vocabulary of his generation. “The voice of the Church and even the voice of God have been kind of silenced”.
Despite the shortfall in clergy and those pursuing the diaconate, Fr Conor encourages anyone considering religious life to be courageous and listen to God calling them – even if it does go against the social grain.
“Be brave and once you take the first step towards God, he comes running towards you. You’ll feel his support the whole way along.”
Although there’s a lot of weight on his shoulders given his new role – a sentiment his mother also expressed when he was appointed – Fr Conor says he’s “both excited and nervous” about what lies ahead of him, adding that God’s providence will move him the right direction.
Whoever said that there’s no wisdom in youth obviously hasn’t met him.