Pope's call and poster campaign promote vocations

Change a life – for the better

People driving past Childwall Fiveways in south Liverpool in the past week may have noticed an advert with a difference adorning one of the bus stops.

It is an advert that features not some perfectly preened model selling an equally shiny new product but instead five normal faces. They are the faces of five religious – two priests, a nun, a brother and a sister. Each of them is smiling and the message below is 'Change a life'.

The poster, which also adorns the front cover of the Pic this month, was distributed to schools and parishes nationwide to coincide with the World Day of Prayer for Vocations on Sunday 26 April. This was the 52nd year of praying for vocations – an experience that Pope Francis, in a special message for the occasion, described as a personal "exodus towards God".

It is an exodus, he wrote, that "fills our lives with joy and meaning" as he urged young people to consider carefully their calling – and to feel no fear. "It means leaving, like Abraham, our native place and going forward with trust, knowing that God will show us the way to a new land. This 'going forward' is not to be viewed as a sign of contempt for one's life, one's feelings, one's own humanity.

"On the contrary, those who set out to follow Christ find life in abundance by putting themselves completely at the service of God and his kingdom. Jesus says: 'Everyone who has left home or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.' [Mt 19:29] All of this is profoundly rooted in love. The Christian vocation is first and foremost a call to love, a love which attracts us and draws us out of ourselves."

The Pope's words were accompanied by a specially published prayer booklet from the National Office for Vocation to mark this Year of Consecrated Life. Titled 'Change a life', the document contains a different theme for five separate days – trust, awakening, openness, seeking, encounter – each accompanied by a reflection and prayer for those called to the priesthood and consecrated life.

The reflection on trust from Sister Anne Mary, from the Institute of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, begins: "Looking back, I could not have imagined the journey God would take me on when I first said 'yes' to him." This is a line that would already resonate with Deacon Stephen Lee, and his ordination as a priest in Liverpool Archdiocese is still two months away.

Not so long ago he was a shy IT technician working at Salford University and, as he admits, he could not help but smile at the way his life has changed as he prepared to concelebrate the Easter Vigil this year. "If somebody had said to me seven years ago that I would one day be stood in front of a congregation of people singing the Exsultet I would have laughed."

The 39-year-old knows better than most people why those discerning a vocation need time to make the correct decision. In his own case, he spent 12 months wrestling with "this constant question" before speaking to a priest during a retreat at Ampleforth Abbey. "He asked if I'd ever thought of a vocation and I said, 'Yes but I've not done anything about it.' He told me I needed to speak to somebody because I didn't want to be sat in ten years' time thinking 'what if?'."

A decade later, Deacon Stephen has discovered that the religious life really does take all kinds. "At Oscott College, we all come from different backgrounds. We have had different careers in all parts of the country, some people have been lawyers, some are straight out of university, but we are all responding to this call from God." And his advice to those now asking the questions he once asked is: "If you've got a thought that God is calling you to priesthood, however small that is, then you need to explore it."

The director of vocations for Liverpool Archiodese, Father James Preston, arranges monthly discernment groups for this very purpose. They meet on the first Saturday of each month at St Charles Borromeo Church in south Liverpool (10am–4pm) and offer people an opportunity to discuss whatever pull they feel inside them – and also to see they are not alone.

Deacon Matthew Jolley will also be ordained as a priest in July and he says: "A lot of people who discern think, 'It is just me' and that no one wants to be a priest any more and it is an old-fashioned thing to do. I remember when I went to Ushaw in 2009 and met people for the first time who were like-minded. It does you the world of good to see you are not the only one."

Deacon Matthew's own experience of vocation was, he adds, "like being prodded with a stick and you cannot ignore it. I tell kids at school that if God wants you he will get you."

And the 28-year-old is only too happy to publicise his calling, both in schools and elsewhere. "It seems a lot of people are taken aback – they don't expect you to be so normal. When I go into secondary schools, they don't expect young men to want to be priests; they always assume the priest is an older chap. I think they must think priests fall out of the sky."

Both these students for the priesthood have faced testing moments along the way. In Deacon Matthew's case, he cites the difficulty of summoning the confidence to help the sick and grieving in hospitals. Yet he is mindful of the message he was given recently by Bishop Robert Byrne. "He told us to have it in our minds that it is a privilege to be able to be there in people's lives – they still want a priest in the key moments and there are few walks of life where you are invited in like that – and to be grateful for it," he explains.

A vocation does change a life, just as the poster on that Childwall bus shelter tells us. Pope Francis will not be passing the Fiveways any time soon but he echoed this sentiment in his message on 26 April.

"I wish to state this clearly to the young, whose youth and openness to the future makes them open-hearted and generous," said the Pontiff. "At times uncertainty, worries about the future and the problems they daily encounter can risk paralysing their youthful enthusiasm and shattering their dreams, to the point where they can think it is not worth the effort to get involved, that the God of the Christian faith is somehow a limit on their freedom. Dear young friends, never be afraid to go out from yourselves and begin the journey!

"The Gospel is the message which brings freedom to our lives; it transforms them and makes them all the more beautiful. How wonderful it is to be surprised by God's call, to embrace his word, and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, in adoration of the divine mystery and in generous service to our neighbours. Your life will become richer and more joyful each day!"

• To contact Fr James Preston, vocations director for Liverpool Archdiocese, call 0151 727 2493 or email vocations@rcaolp.co.uk.