When I’m asked to say a little about who I am, I normally answer around the area of identity – I recall a few different articles that have had this theme – and so as I set out to write my vocation story, this again popped into my mind – as if this was my hobby horse. I would normally use Matt 16: 15 (where Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is) to identify with my vocation story – I normally did this as if Jesus was then asking me who I am; but I recently was reading and praying with Tobit and came across this piece: I will now declare the whole truth to you and will conceal nothing from you (Tobit 12: 11). The setting for this is that the Archangel Raphael is about to disclose his identity to Tobias, who he has travelled with when trying to get a cure for his father’s blindness. The disclosure of God in our lives can mean a lot for the journey that we have travelled and it is only through reflecting upon my journey that I can see God truly working with and through me.
I’ve never written the following, but I have spoken about it to a few different groups: when I was growing up, it was quite hard for me to know who I was. At first I was known as Mr Lafferty’s son – my dad was a primary school teacher at the school I went to and, mercifully enough, I was never in his class!! But that didn’t stop other teachers, parents and strangers from pointing out ‘are you Mr Lafferty’s sons?’ Of course this was probably an easy way out because I am a twin as well – so if it wasn’t ‘Mr Lafferty’s son’ it was ‘you’re one of the twins.’ This continued for quite a while – I have fond memories of growing up and yes, Harry (my twin) and I did play a few tricks with friends and family. Until we were 15 or 16, Harry and I always had to wear different coloured shirts to avoid too much confusion. The fond memories included growing up in quite a faithful tradition and environment – I remember one of my granny’s taking each of her grandchildren aside and praying with them and to encourage each of us to consider our vocation. I probably got on better with my other granny as she always had a biscuit tin for each of her grandchildren!!
As I grew up though, I wanted to experience life and I went off to Queen’s University, Belfast where I studied Chemical Engineering for four years. My practice of faith during these years would not have been the same when I was in the family environment of Derry. This continued for a few years after, even when I had returned home, until I was kindly asked and invited to read one weekend at Sunday Mass in our parish. This invitation came from my mother and as many Irish people can testify to, it’s very hard to say ‘no’ to mammy!! This reading at Mass then became a monthly event, before coming a weekly event and then the next thing I know I am actually helping organise the Liturgy of the Word for parish. During this time, as well, I was invited by my parish priest to go on pilgrimage with the diocese to Lourdes. I remember politely declining, thinking that I was doing my piece for the parish. One day as I was entering the house, my dad answered the phone and I just remember hearing him say ‘Of course Fr Neil, Charles is looking forward to going to Lourdes.’ The terror that struck me as I went on the bus to the airport was on a new level compared to before – public speaking was fine, but making a public witness to my faith in this way was not something I thought I would be good with. The journey to Lourdes didn’t help either: we lifted off from Belfast at around 8am and with two pit stops in Dublin, we finally arrived in Lourdes at around 8pm local time. I remember seeing the candle light procession from on top of the main basilica and there was just a peace and a beauty that overcame me. I was standing with some friends (two guys and three girls) and there was some amount of tears being spilled – in gratitude for being there after the journey, for being there with each other and I think for being in the presence of God.
Needless to say, I had a complete ball, made so many new friends and wanted this to continue that I immediately signed up for going to a summer youth festival. This inspired me to get more active within my parish and in Derry and all of this helped me grow in a personal relationship with Jesus. There was so much fun, joy and excitement in this circle of friends and that as I continued to grow in service for the parish and in Youth 2000, I realised that I was enjoying this way of living – working and living for God. Previous to this I was a bit nomadic – travelling up and down to Belfast for a management course, then to Magherafelt for a job in a bakery as a quality assurance officer and then getting a job in Derry in computers. With Tobias, he was handling a fish as a cure for his father’s blindness – if anyone knows me, then they know that I do not like fish. As I was doing more and more with my faith life (how I like to imagine the fish), growing in that personal relationship, it was as if my own blindness had been lifted. I realised that perhaps God was calling me to be a priest. It took me over a year to discern what sort of priest – not being fully accepted by the diocese hurt quite a bit and through a meeting with Fr Emmet in Knock, I came in touch with the Pallottines. I had met a few Pallottine priests through Youth 2000 and their personal touch and witness inspired me to look deeper with the Pallottine family. I went to a few different retreats and in September 2010 I started life with in Dundrum with them.
I heard in my first Pallottine community retreat of how St Vincent Pallotti would come in front of the Blessed Sacrament and ask two questions: ‘who are you God?’ and ‘Who am I in front of you?’ I truly believe that as I have travelled on my journey of faith, it has been easier for me to see who I am – not just Mr Lafferty’s son or one of the twins; but that I am a child of God. This period with the Pallottines has been an unbelievable and grace-filled time for me (with a few bumps along the way) but I know that God has a path for me with the Pallottines. In this, the Year of Consecrated Life, I look forward with joy to making my Final Consecration of Pallottine promises in September, along with three of my fellow brothers. Please pray for all of us as God continues to declare the whole truth to each of us in his special and loving way. I also wish to give thanks to all of my family, but especially to my mum and dad; and to my two grannies who continue to send their blessings from their eternal reward.
St Vincent Pallotti, pray for us.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.