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‘I think people are just surprised to see a young priest’: Fr David Vard on life as a 30-something priest and his recent move ‘just out the road’ from Portlaoise to Stradbally

Fr David Vard

As a 31-year-old who is an avid Munster rugby fan, is savvy on social media, enjoys travel and dotes on his nephew and nieces, Fr David Vard is like many others his age.

But as one of the youngest priests in the country who has featured on the Tommy Tiernan Show, his story diverges from those of other 30-somethings.

Appointed to Portlaoise parish in 2017, he recently relocated to Stradbally for his new role as administrator there while retired parish priest Fr Sean Kelly continues to preach.

“In the future, parishes will be working more closely together. I’ve left Portlaoise parish but I’m still keeping on chaplaincy work in Scoil Chriost Ri and the CBS, and I will be working closely with the priests of the parish as well,” he said.

The mantle of youngest priest in the country has been passed onto a slightly younger counterpart in Cork but he is the youngest priest in the diocese.

He is happy that he will retain some links with Portlaoise while pursuing his new role in which he had the sad task of celebrating the funeral mass for 15-year-old Ronan McNamara from Timahoe recently.

He made the move ‘just out the road’ quietly over the bank holiday weekend as the annual Steam Rally took place in Stradbally.

Locals were, he said, very welcoming. “I got to meet some of them as I arrived and to shake their hands. Hopefully I get to meet more over the next few weeks.”

Portlaoise was a great parish in which to start his journey into the priesthood, he said. “The people are exceptionally good and it’s an exceptionally busy parish.

“I think it’s the only parish in Ireland that has two prisons, a hospital, countless schools and the regular parish stuff as well. It definitely kept me on my toes. This is definitely a change of pace and attitude but I’m looking forward to it.”

Stradbally will keep him within striking distance of his hometown of Newbridge, facilitating easy access to his family. His parents are divorced, and he has two sisters.

Fr David Vard

“My sister Rebecca has three children, one boy and two girls. They love to see me come because they’ll know I’ll give them money,” he laughed.

“I would describe myself as a shy person, but I have definitely come out of my shell a bit.

“I think people are just surprised to see a young priest. Their immediate response is ‘Why? I didn’t think there was any young priests in Ireland.’ So it’s a good conversation starter.

“People asked me why I joined the priesthood. I tell them the story of how a trip to Lourdes made me see faith in a different light it ultimately led me down the path towards priesthood. I enjoy telling the story and I hope it inspires other people to think about joining the priesthood.

“I was 16 when I thought about being a priest. You enter the seminary at 18 and you can leave at any time.

“So there was always a possibility. My formators, the priests who were in charge of me in the seminary were very honest with me and said: ‘Well David maybe next year or the year after, you might take a year out, you might go and do X,Y and Z’ and I said: ‘Yes, no bother.  I was very open to leaving but it never happened,” he said.

“A priest gave me a piece of advice saying that if you want to leave, give it eight weeks, 12 weeks, and at the end of those 12 weeks, if you still want to leave, then go.

“But I think with everything we do, whether it’s in journalism as a teacher, doctor or nurse, you always have bad days and good days where you want to leave and give it all up and run off.

“I had days that were difficult. The thoughts never lasted too long. There were days in Portlaoise when I wanted to give it all up but they never lasted too long.”

Like anyone else who works alongside colleagues who are decades older, he has sometimes found being the youngest priest in the diocese by many years, difficult.

“In years gone by, especially in the parish of Portlaoise, they would have had four or five curates who would have been the same age. My priest friends are in Meath, Cork, different dioceses, and Galway, so I reach out to them.

“I also have my regular friends who I went to school with, and I hang out with them. We all talk about work together.”

That very youth was the reason he was relentlessly pursued by the researchers on the Tommy Tiernan Show.

“Appearing on the Tommy Tiernan show was definitely not something I wanted to do. Hand on heart, I could say I definitely didn’t want to do it but they kept badgering me.

“I asked my bishop, and I was hoping he would say no way and I could go back and say the bishop said no,” he laughed.

“But Bishop Denis said: ‘No, no, this is a good thing.’ He helped me to get a bit of media training and all that.  I had Covid at the time it aired, and I was home alone and was pacing up and down and couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

“I was saying to myself: ‘Don’t go on Twitter, don’t go on Twitter.’ But I did and it was mostly positive. The first time I saw it was on TV. The whole interview lasted – now I hope I’m not giving away the secrets of the Tommy Tiernan show – just over an hour.

“They take the ‘best bits’ from it. I had a little bit of a say as to what went into it and what came out. At the end, everyone agreed as to what was to go in,” said Fr David who admitted to a huge sense of relief once it was all over.

The issue of celibacy is one that always comes up but Fr. David said it isn’t an everyday struggle for him.

“I’m very happy in my life at the moment. If you asked a married man or woman, they would say they have good and bad days. I’m very happy, I’d never look at a colleague in the Church of Ireland and go: ‘God it’s so unfair they can get married,” he responded to a question on the difference in approach between the churches.

“Who am I to say here in Stradbally what the church is going to do in 20-, 30-, 40- or 50-years’ time?’

Travel is something he enjoys so he was delighted to be asked by the Irish Catholic to be spiritual director of a trip to Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem in October.

“Sure, I’d be mad to turn that down. I’m looking forward to going. I like travel but you can’t do it as much as a priest. I love to experience new cultures.”

Carving out time for travel and breaks can be difficult as a priest, he acknowledged. “I think it’s up to the priest and moving to a new parish, I have the opportunity to say, ‘Listen, on a Monday it’s my day off. I will get back to you as soon as I can and if it’s urgent obviously, I will deal with it’,” Fr David remarked.

“In any job you have to set boundaries and a priest even when they leave the parish that they are in, they’re still a priest. You have obligations to the priesthood on a day off.

“It’s a case of setting boundaries and making sure I’m looking after myself. If I don’t look after myself, I’m running on empty and that’s no good,” he reflected.

One of the ways he switches off is by taking his dog for a stroll. “I love dogs. My family has a new dog, a puppy. She’s a golden doodle and is a year old now.

“We lost our Labrador in September. She will be in Stradbally a little bit with me now, but she is shared. It’s meant to be 50/50 share but my sister has taken her about 90 per cent of the time. Hopefully she will be around a lot in Stradbally.”

A big social outlet for him is the world of rugby. “I played rugby for Newbridge up to under 18 level. My mother is from Limerick.

“Rugby is like a religion down there and I support Munster. People call me a ‘Lunster’ supporter but no, I’m a Munster man. I’ve a huge interest in rugby.”

Fr David Vard, second from right, at his ordination mass in Newbridge

In Stradbally, he is looking forward to getting involved in the local GAA and supporting the local teams. Keeping in contact with friends in other parts of the country is also important to him.

“Recently a friend of mine was home from Australia and a group of us met up in Dublin city. I drove up and drove back down. I was at ten o’clock Mass that morning and also at a funeral in Portlaoise that morning. So it’s all about work life balance, making sure I’ve things to look forward to.”

Looking back over his years in Portlaoise, he sees the highs relating to his work with the schools. “I always enjoyed my work with the schools. They were always high points for me, working with the schools and the sacraments.

“The low points are definitely funerals, especially of young people and having to be the priest in those situations. People want you to say the right words and there are no words.

“I’m just thinking of a few funerals that were definitely very tragic and very sad and very difficult. If it got easier as time went on, I would be less human,” he reflected.

“At the moment my focus is just to get to know the people in Stradbally, settle in, unpack a few boxes as they are as high as the ceiling here, and find my way around.”

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