“If you don’t believe you are a cherished child of God, how do you proclaim that to others?” asks Father Damian Cassidy O.Carm.
“If you don’t like yourself, how are you going to build up other people?” Those are questions the former Prior of Aylesford asks the 17 men from England, Ireland, Canada, and Scandinavia who take the Propaedeutic Year at St Alban’s.
Father Damian is teaching Human Formation, and other elements, pastoral and intellectual, of the Propaedeutic syllabus. He has taught students a short course titled Consideration of Self -Image, Self-Worth and Self-Esteem. What links self-worth and being a good priest?
“If you have a flawed image of yourself, your image of God is likely to be quite compromised. This will reflect in how you preach and minister.”
Past relationships, for instance, can impact on self-worth.
“Often people’s experience has not been positive,” says Father Damian, drawing on his time as a former Carmelite vocations director.
Some candidates he’s met have had loving relationships. From this they grew, discerning a calling to the Church.
“They bring into ministry that feeling of belonging and being in love with the Church.”
Others, however, may enter formation with negative experiences, having felt rejected or used in relationships.
“In ministry that can be quite destructive,” says Father Damian gently. “Some people may have never experienced unconditional love. They may not yet know the only true source of their value is their relationship with the Lord.”
Father Damian’s aim is to help each student discover that God loves them unconditionally. Only then can a future priest understand his life is a gift to offer the Church.
To many, the block to a priestly or religious vocation is seeing this “as a threat, not a gift.”
It’s a path Father Cassidy has himself trodden.
“I saw my call at first as a threat because it jeopardised what I wanted to do,” he explains.
Born in Solihull in the West Midlands, his family moved to Kent in 1969. Carmelite friars worked as chaplains in his high school, making a deep impression on him.
At 19, he entered the noviciate, “but soon realised I didn’t understand the vows I was going to make.” So he left to train as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital.
For 10 years he worked in major London hospitals, eventually in casualty. Along the way, he “struggled with faith and what it was calling me to. But my discomfort grew, becoming unavoidable. It got to a point where I knew all I was doing at work was patching people up and sending them out again. It became dissatisfying.”
So in 1996, he re-entered the Carmelites. He professed final vows in 1997 and in 2003, was ordained a priest. Since then, he has worked in parishes, and youth and retreat ministry including university chaplaincies.
“My vocation is a gift, one I am still growing into,” he says. What did his time as a nurse add? “Empathy. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to help people.”
He has never forgotten once meeting a homeless man “in a really bad way” in Casualty. With a student nurse, he gave him a bath. The man was very weak and mute.
But, as they washed him, his face filled with a look of “sheer gratitude”.
Father Damian recalls: “We became more gentle because of his response. We were overwhelmed by his gratitude. Then we saw that he had been living with an invasive tumour.
Like with that man, priesthood is all about seeing people not as problems but as people.”
Since joining the college community, Father Damian has “enjoyed walking the corridors and worshipping in the places where the College Saints have knelt.”
As a Carmelite, he has appreciated the chance to visit Avila. What drew Father Damian to Carmelite spirituality? He cites a passion for two key figures in the Carmel: Our Lady and Elijah.
On the feast of Elijah, he took his final vows. The white cloak worn by Carmelites symbolises Elijah’s calling as prophet, and the mantle that he cast down (1 Kings 19:19).
“We are clothed in that identity and mission,” says Father Damian. “Elijah has always represented that steadfast commitment to God even when it’s uncomfortable. He also represents the fact we can go into dark places but God will still come to us.”
The figure of Elijah is one for every baptised Catholic, he stresses: “We need to connect with our baptismal call, anointing us as priest, prophet and king. As a generationand as a Church we need to connect more strongly to that baptismal call. We need to live it as a Church.
“God is alive and God has a message for us,” he grins.