Since his ordination in 2010, Fr Martin Whelan has become a familiar face to the thousands who attend Mass in Galway Cathedral on a regular basis. In addition to his work as curate, assisting parish priest Canon Peter Rabbitte, he is also busy with his role as diocesan secretary. Fr Whelan is one of a new breed of younger generation priests who are firmly making their mark on life in the Diocese of Galway, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora
Indeed, and rather unusually in recent times, three priests from Galway will be ordained in 2016. Mike King from Renmore and John O’Halloran from Killanin will be ordained together on January 6, while next July Bohermore native Danny Gallagher will also graduate from the seminary in Maynooth.
Fr Whelan says he was about 12 years old, when he first realised that he had a calling. “In a way it is no different to becoming a nurse, or entering a caring profession, you are either drawn to that way of life. It is a vocation, and it is as simple as that. It was not any one particular incident, you can’t pinpoint any one thing. I just gradually came to the realisation that this was the path I was going to take.”
The curate hails from the village of Ardrahan, in south Galway and names former parish priest Fr Joe Kelly (RIP ) as being a big influence on him as a youngster. “I lost my father when I was nine, so as a family, we probably had more contact with the priest than others. I always felt that Fr Kelly set a great example of what a priest should be. I come from a rural area, where a priest’s work is a very positive, affirming experience.”
A way of life
There are many who may view the life of a priest, as a very lonely existence. Fr Whelan has spoken about the issue of celibacy before and how it is something that one must make peace with, to be fulfilled by the position. “Being a priest is a lifestyle. It is not a 9 - 5 job - it is a way of being, and celibacy is part of that. The parish becomes your family. I would agree that it can be a lonely life, but I also think the life of a priest is what you make of it. For me it is important to have a balance - that is of being sustained by prayer, and nourished by your ministry, but also having a circle of close friends and family. It is very important to me to stay in touch with these people. You must have a good idea about real life, if you are to have any sense of compassion when dealing with people.”
There has obviously been a marked decline in Mass attendance in latter years. This is something that can be attributed in part to the plethora of scandals the church has been involved in, but the fast pace of life is without doubt another reason. Once upon a time the church was the primary institution in society, nowadays, it is only one of many. Indeed attendance has been gradually declining since the 1970s and the church’s stronghold on Ireland is a distant memory. Fr Whelan says it is a very complicated, sensitive area, and he certainly would not be telling people to go to Mass. “A person’s religious practice is personal to them. You can’t force people to go to Mass, it is either something which nourishEs you or does not. I would just hope that people are not neglecting their spirituality, because that is the outlook on life that is needed to sustain you through the tough times. As priests, all we can do is meet people’s pastoral needs as they require them.”
He says one thing that always takes him by surprise, particularly when he officiates at weddings, is the level of faith among young people. “There is still a wealth of spirituality out there.”
Part of the human
Something else which struck a chord with him is following the two biggest terror attacks of recent years, the public turned to the church in their droves. “After 9/11, there was a major outpouring of grief, churches were packed all over the country for impromptu memorial services. And a few weeks ago, following the atrocity in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral was packed to the rafters that Sunday. And France would be a far more secular society than Ireland. A person might not be religious per se, but religion is part of the human condition - whether you like it or not, you will find it in all parts of society.”
Diocesan priesthood is obviously the most public form of ministry. A priest becomes a major part of the community which he serves, and the community becomes part of him. “That is very much tied in with the teachings in Maynooth. The role is about serving a particular area and its people. You get to know about people’s culture and traditions in order to be able to administer to them properly. It is important that as priests we are sensitive to this.”
The parish system would not work without the goodwill of people across the diocese and this is something for which he is intensely grateful. “People are extremely generous, and I don’t just mean financially, they give their time and expertise to parish councils, and other various schemes that could not function otherwise. It is very fulfilling to work with people who give their lives to their community. The parish forms an incredibly important social network for some people, particularly the elderly. Loneliness is a huge issue nowadays and something as simple as daily Mass can be a major social ritual.”
The curate is a person of prayer, but he is also very much a people’s person. It is obvious that he garners enjoyment from his role and is intensely fulfilled by the variety of work a priest carries out. “I do get great joy from the work. I enjoy the liturgies that are important to people, like baptisms and weddings. These are lovely, happy, occasions to be involved with. The sadder occasions are obviously funerals, but pastoral care is intensely important for some people at these times. It is vital for a priest to be as supportive as possible and provide people with as much spiritual guidance as they look for.”
+Fr Whelan is on the board of directors of COPE Galway. He has a huge affinity with the charity and the work it does. COPE Galway work with the homeless, and women and children suffering domestic violence. In addition to these services, COPE delivers more than 50,000 meals on wheels to older people in Galway city and county. The priest will take part in a sleep out event on Shop Street tomorrow (Friday ) night in aid of the charity, and he will be accompanied by many more well known Galway faces.