By Carmen Elena Villa
VATICAN CITY, JUNE 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- As one part of the celebration closing the Year for Priests, clergy were invited to share their vocational testimonies onstage in Paul VI Hall.
Among the presenters in Wednesday's event were priests who discovered and cultivated their vocations in the midst of war, men who left behind a life dedicated to vice, those who discovered their vocations during a crisis of faith due to a secular culture or an illness.
The "Priests Today" event was promoted by the clergy of the Focolare and Schoenstatt Movements, in collaboration with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and other ecclesial movements. It was supported by the Congregation for Clergy.
The gathering included songs, videos on the priestly vocation and extracts from addresses given by Benedict XVI during this Year for Priests.
In the midst of this festive, prayerful environment, thousands of priests from all over the world could be seen wearing earphones for translation, ready to hear the testimonies of dozens of their brothers who went on stage to share how God had touched their hearts and how he continues to encourage them to be faithful to this call.
Three African priests from Burundi took the stage first: Father Ildephonse Niyongabo, Father Pasteur Manirambona and Father Marc Bigirindavyi.
The first told how he entered the seminary in 1992, shortly before a civil war broke out in his country. Troops invaded the minor seminary in Buta where he was engaged in his formation.
"I remember that on April 29, 1997, the adversaries entered our seminary," Father Niyongabo recalled. "We wondered, how we should behave?"
He continued: "We thought of staying united. They began to shoot at random. We remained united and that day I lost my brother along with others."
"They wounded me and I got under the bed," the priest said. "All of a sudden there was a great explosion -- a grenade had been thrown next to us."
He said: "They continued to shoot. In the midst of this hell my companions were dying, saying: 'God, forgive them for they know not what they do.'
"The rest began to treat the wounds of the others, risking death."
Father Niyongabo admitted that after this incident he experienced an interior battle, and began to wonder if it was necessary to be a priest to be a good Christian.
Then the rector of the seminary asked him to teach there, where he felt called again. "I entered the major seminary and became a priest in 2004," the presbyter concluded.
Bishop Joseph Grech of the Sandhurst Diocese, Australia, told his audience that the only objective of his priestly vocation is to "help people and to have a profound relationship with Jesus Christ."
"I thank God for my first pastor who, one day, not long after my arrival in the parish, prayed with me," the prelate recalled. "He prayed that I would be able to experience the Risen Christ from the beginning of my priestly ministry and be a witness of him."
"In the depth of my heart," the bishop said, "I know that Jesus is present in everything I do and touches those I meet as he did during the time when he walked the streets of Israel."
Father Helmut Kappes of Germany told the participants about the problem of alcoholism that he confronted in his youth.
"I thought that it helped me to face difficult situations better," he said. "On the contrary, they increased." Thus, he decided to enter rehabilitation therapy.
The priest recalled that "different meetings made me understand how important it was to listen to what was in the depth of my soul."
Today Father Kappes works full time in the apostolate. "I feel supported by my community," he concluded.
Venezuelan Father Cristian Díaz Yepes recounted that as a youth he wanted to be a painter and writer, "but God was calling me to greater things."
Yet his path to priestly ordination was not exempt from trials, as he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness that would impede his being ordained a priest.
"I thought I had lost a beautiful vocation," he said, "and thanks to the help of a priest and laypeople, I saw that my new calling was to choose God alone."
Father Díaz recalled, "I wanted to live each moment with intensity so that my companions would undertake this vocation which I, supposedly, was losing."
However, his health began to improve and directors of the seminary allowed him to stay. Between his ordination as a deacon and his ordination as a priest he endured another illness, but was finally able to overcome it.
After all this, Father Díaz said, "I am convinced that my security can be none other than God."
Irish Father Brendan Purcell went onstage to speak about the story of his vocation, but also to reflect on the difficult time the Church is going through in his country because of the scandals of sexual abuse by some priests.
He said that on one occasion he was invited to talk on a television program where a debate on this topic was presented. The priest resolved to take this attitude: "I must not win; I must only love."
"Instead of saying that I had nothing to do with it, I spoke about my shame and took on myself the sins of the others," he stated.
The presbyter noted that one of the abuse victims took part in the program: "I expected an attack from him against me, yet he said 'it's good to hear a priest like this.'"
The meeting ended with Vespers presided over by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.
Before beginning his homily, the cardinal addressed spontaneous words to the participants, saying that this meeting "reminds me of John Paul II in the memorable vigil of Pentecost in 1998 with the ecclesial movements."
"It was a really grandiose and very important meeting," he said.
Cardinal Hummes added that seeing so many priests together "rejuvenates us, gives us the joy of being priests."
He invited the clergy to be witnesses in this culture, "at times somewhat difficult, without a doubt, but it is possible to evangelize in all cultures," as "all have goodness and truth in them."