Profile: Deacon Brendan McAllister

Newry Cathedral News

Newry Cathedral Parish congratulates newly ordained Deacon Brendan McAllister

Many roads on his Journey with God

On Sunday 30th January, Brendan McAllister was ordained in Armagh Cathedral as a deacon for the Diocese of Dromore. From Greenwood Drive on the Warrenpoint Road, Brendan attended the Christian Brothers’ schools in Newry before going to Queens University to study History and Politics. He subsequently trained in Social Work and spent 12 years as a Probation Officer, including 2 years in Maghaberry Prison.

Left to Right: Carlos Rojo from the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Dundalk, Deacon Brendan McAllister, Canon Francis Brown, Administrator Newry Cathedral. Photo: Mark G. Byrne.

In 1992 Brendan became Director of Mediation Northern Ireland and over the next 16 years he was very involved in mediation of the Troubles. He served for four years as a Commissioner for victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict before moving into the international peace mediation field in 2012, working first in Brussels for the European Union before joining the United Nations in New York in 2015 as a Senior Mediation Advisor. Brendan’s final appointment was as the Interim Advocate for victims of historical institutional abuse until his retirement in December 2020.

A sense of calling

Whilst his long career has taken him from probation, to peacebuilding, to the Church, his sense of religious vocation is not new. Brendan says that he first felt a calling at the age of 16 and presumed that it was for priesthood. But then he met Elizabeth McGrath and followed his destiny to become a husband and father.

“But a sense of calling never left me. Everything I have done has involved some discernment with God and a desire to follow where he might lead me in life”.

Rev. Brendan McAllister

While there were deacons as well as bishops and priests in the early centuries of the Church, the ordination of deacons gradually fell into disuse. Although the diaconate was reintroduced to the Church by the Second Vatican Council, it was only restored in Ireland in recent times. A few years ago, Elizabeth’s cousin observed that he might make a good deacon.

“At first I laughed at the idea. I was nearly 60; time had moved on and I was comfortable with my life.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

But the notion began to pull at him and would not leave him alone.

“It was not easy to take the first steps; I was embarrassed and awkward, but this latest calling was steady and strong and I had to respond if I was to stay true to myself”.

Rev. Brendan McAllister

However, as he begins his ministry he can see that being a deacon who is a husband, father and grandfather can have its challenges. One morning last week when he was trying to get out the door one of his grandsons crawled up on his knee for a sleep. He had to settle himself and nurse the child.

The grace of diaconal formation.
Brendan’s four-year formation has involved the study of theology and a pastoral placement in Warrenpoint and Burren, all in the context of a spiritual journey involving prayer and reflection. Brendan says his training has been a privilege.

“It amazed me that, despite living all of my life as a Catholic, it was only in my sixties that I was being given a deeper understanding of Scripture, of theology and Church teaching on social issues”.

Rev. Brendan McAllister

He was particularly struck to learn that the Catholic tradition places great importance on the ‘sensus fidelium’ (the sense of the faithful), meaning that, in addition to Scripture and the teaching of bishops, the Church relies on the Spirit of God at work among the people.

“If the spirit is not in the people, the church is not working right.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

He finds it interesting that the synodal process begun by Pope Francis places such importance on the sense of the faithful.

“After all that the Catholic Church has come through, it is wonderful to see it turn to the people in search of wisdom”.

Rev. Brendan McAllister

Active Ministry on the ground

There are three types of ordained ministers in the Catholic Church, each with their own specialism. Bishops provide teaching and leadership; priests celebrate the Sacraments and deacons enable the Church to be of service.

The permanent deaconate is a voluntary ministry, for married or single men. The areas entrusted to deacons can be summed up as ‘Altar, Word and Charity’. Deacons assist the priest at Mass, when they have a particular responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to regularly preach; they can celebrate baptism and marriage and preside at funerals. However, the defining feature of a deacon’s life is the exercise of charity.

“To put it another way, deacons need to help the Church to be engaged with the significant social issues of our times. And by ‘Church’ I mean the people of God.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

Much of Brendan’s career has prepared him well for this ministry and he is looking forward to his life of service as deacon.

From 16 to 60

Whilst for Brendan it was almost 4 decades from his first calling to ordained ministry, he points out that

“the church believes we are all called into ministry at our baptism and throughout our lives there may be many different types of ministry.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

He accepts that the reappearance of deacons among the clergy will take quite some time for people to get used to. However, he places greater significance on the renewal of ministry among the lay members of the Church.

“The future Church will be driven by the people. We are living in exciting times because there is a growing interest among ordinary people in the vision of a Church that places importance on listening for the Holy Spirit at work among them and on empowering the laity.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

Lighting a candle from someone else’s prayer.

Brendan hopes to be in a position to help people grow in their spirituality and to see God in all aspects of their lives. He has a particular interest in ‘contemplative spirituality’.

“Most people think they have to pray with words but, in contemplation, we listen to God”. To listen we have to find ways to be still and be quiet. I can do that in a corner at home or go into a church and find a quiet place.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

And every time he lights a candle in Newry Cathedral he is conscious of taking the flame from another candle which is someone else’s prayer. “We are all connected to each other” he says.

The need for conservation and change

Brendan pays tribute to all those who have accompanied him on his journey to become an ordained minister. He is most grateful to his wife, Elizabeth, who has been by his side throughout his life and career. It is obvious the support he draws from her as I have never had a conversation with Brendan where he doesn’t refer to Elizabeth. He has learned not to take life for granted and fervently believes that

“People need clergy and people will get used to married clergy. The Church in these times must conserve what is best in its traditions while also being open to change as well.”

Rev. Brendan McAllister

The restoration of the diaconate is a sign both of conservation and of change.