The character CJ in the Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin was famous for saying ‘I didn’t get where I am today by…..’ A number of my friends bring me down to earth by reminding me ‘I know exactly how you got to where you are today’.
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide is traditionally called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ taken the themes running through the prayers and readings at Mass. It is also a day when we pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. At Mass today I decided to share with the parish community a little of how I got to be where I am today as the Parish Priest of this large, vibrant faith community.
As they say in theatre ‘picture the scene.’ A young, nervous teenager is on the threshold of a religious house belonging to the Conventual Franciscans Barton, Manchester. He knocks on the door and after a while one of the friars flings open the door and shouts ‘what do you want? Clear off, I’m having my dinner!’ and shut the door. Needless to say I did clear off – but only to return a few days later to pose the question about a possibility of a vocation to the religious life and the priesthood.
The initial meeting began a period of discernment and reflection that eventually led to me packing a few belongings and moving down to the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury to begin my formation for the religious life and the priesthood. Over a period of 7 years I studied philosophy, theology and Franciscan spirituality. This eventually led to my Solemn Profession at Upholland College and my ordination to the priesthood in 1998 at St Clare’s in Higher Blackley.
After my ordination to the priesthood my first appointment was to at St Clare’s where I was to spend three years. However during that time I began to feel that maybe I was in the wrong place. By this I don’t mean the parish setting as parishes are parishes no matter where they are. I mean was I in the right place as a member of a religious order? I felt certain that my vocation was the priesthood it was now a question of where and how that should be exercised.
After a lot of thought and prayer on the 11th February, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes I wrote a letter to the then Bishop of Salford, Terence Brain that begin ‘Dear Bishop Brain, you don’t know me but….’ I went on to explain my situation and my thoughts that maybe God was leading me to exercise my priesthood in the diocese rather than with the Franciscans.
The initial letter to Bishop Brain led to many more letters and discussions between myself, the Bishop and my religious superiors. The upshot was me writing yet another letter. This time the letter began ‘Most Holy Father, I humbly request….’ In that letter of petition to the Pope I requested that I be dispensed from my religious profession so that I could be incardinated into the diocese of Salford as a secular priest. I am happy to say that the Holy Father acceded to my request and the dispensation was granted.
Upon incardination into the diocese Mgr Quinlan the then Provost and Vicar General asked me to go to the parish of the Sacred Heart in Accrington ‘for a fortnight’ as the news of the sudden death of the parish priest had been reported to the bishop’s office. My task was to be with the people of the parish and help them prepare for the funeral of their parish priest. This I did and ended up staying there for two and half years!!!
At that time the diocesan review ‘Faith in the Future’ was under way and it was decided that the parish of the Sacred Heart closed and the church demolished. It was a difficult time for us all. A friend commented that I had the wonderful opening line for my new parish ‘my dear people my last parish I closed and demolished, so be nice to me!!!’
From the Sacred Heart, Bishop Brain then appointed me as assistant priest to the great Fr Tom Connolly at St Kentigern’s in Fallowfield. At the time of my appointment Bishop Brian said I would be there ‘at least three years so I could get my feet under the table.’ (As an aside never trust bishops). Eighteen months later the Bishop moved me from St Kentigern’s to be Parish Priest and Chaplain to Tameside Hospital – a role I had for four years. It might have been longer had not some ruffians decided to force their way into the presbytery on dark November night and relieve me of the contents of the safe. Unfortunately I was in the presbytery at the time and got in the way. I’ll spare you the details – but picture the scene.
After the attack in Ashton the Bishop thought for my own peace of mind a fresh start in another place would be good and appointed me firstly to the parish of St Marie in Bury which as you know became the united parish of St Marie and St Joseph upon the retirement of the great Fr Bob Morrow.
You may wonder why am I telling you all this? It is certainly not to gain admiration for the things that I have done. It is, I hope, an attempt to highlight the vocation of the priesthood within our diocese of Salford. It is an attempt to highlight the call of the Good Shepherd in the lives of us all. What is the Lord asking of me? What ‘definite service’ can I do for Him?
I hope this potted history of my journey to the priesthood will inspire others to follow that same path. But I need to be honest. I would be lying (and it’s a sin to tell lies – especially in church- if I told you life was always a bed of roses. In my journey to this parish there have been challenges. There have been times when I have thought about turning my back on it all and, as some of my none Catholic, none believing friends would say ‘go and get a proper job.’
Despite the challenges, despite the difficulties something keeps me in the priesthood. It may be a kind word from a parishioner, an appreciation of something I have done that has helped someone. It may the joy of celebrating the sacraments with and for the people committed to my care. Something keeps me here. Something keeps me plodding on.
Continue to pray for me. Continue to pray for our seminarians that the Lord with help them to be good and holy priests in the future. Pray for the priests of our diocese and throughout the world that we may lead you to Christ the Good Shepherd.
Lastly we must be careful about what we pray for. As the Class of 1991 entering the seminary famously said to an old priest in the seminary community ‘Eeeee, Father I bet when you were praying for vocations all those years ago, you never expected we would be the answer to your prayers!’
God bless you and let us pray for each other.