The 9th of May 2017 …
… marks the 30th anniversary since my ordination to the Catholic priesthood. I’ve been teaching sexual health for 27 years now; many people may not even know about the ten years spent for the priesthood, a decade in my past life. These days, I am more inclined to consider myself ‘post-Catholic’, but there’s always a tug on the heart strings when I see “Sister Act” or Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” or some other Hollywood epic with a Catholic theme.
Quite often, when people find out I was ordained and then left the active ministry, they blurt out “Oh, so you didn’t have a vocation!?” Just like when I was actually working in parish life, and a life-long family friend – who knew of the difficult times I was experiencing – on hearing me say something unrelated, to being gay, replied “Oh, I’m glad you’ve told me. So if you leave (the priesthood), I’ll know why!”
Wrong, on both counts! Many people have a rather sentimental and pious view about a calling, a “vocation” to the priestly or religious life. That Hollywood-inspired ‘voice of God’ motif is more appropriate as a voice-over in the UK’s National Lottery adverts than anything to do with Catholic Theology on the ordained ministry. Think back to the scene of a sneaky late-night ice-cream feast in the film Sister Act. The young novice asks Sr Mary Clarence (aka the wonderful Whoopi Goldberg) “and when did YOU get the calling?” “The calling? What calling? … OH! THE calling!”
In Catholic Theology, one doesn’t get a “calling” to the diaconate or priesthood until the ordaining bishop confirms such by uttering those words, on behalf of the whole Church: “We choose (call) this man, our brother, to the order of deacon / priest”. “We choose” i.e. “to call”, from the Latin vocare: that’s the moment of vocation! But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
There is one crucial step before the bishop “calls” a man – sorry, ladies: the Catholic Church is yet to catch up on that one! – and that’s when the bishop enquires of ‘the people of God’ whether the candidate is suitable and ready. My advocate, to answer on behalf of the PoGs (the People of God) and all those who ‘formed’ me (the term used for priestly formation, or the 7 years studies I did) was Monsignor Kirkham, from St Mary’s Seminary, Oscott. I did my final year of preparation there.
“Most Reverend Father, holy mother Church asks you to ordain this man, our brother, for service as priest.
The bishop says: Do you judge him to be worthy?
He answers: After inquiry among the people of Christ and upon recommendation of those concerned with his training, I testify that he has been found worthy.”
Another crucial point to be emphasised is that when the bishop voices the priestly calling to a candidate, he doesn’t say “we call this HETEROSEXUAL man”. That’s important to clarify in these decades of severe institutionalised homophobia, under John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI. No doubt I will write a blog on this at another point; I know it’s bubbling within me. Those two Roman Pontiffs, and their ilk, have robbed the Church of some amazing, caring pastors, over the decades, not to mention the millions of people dead because of intransigence to allow condoms to protect against HIV. I feel they also robbed me, and many more for sure, of our faith and our ecclesia, our church or community of believers. But that’s for another day!
A week ago, early in May 2017, I found an old letter from the vocations director of the Franciscan Order. He actually left the priesthood and married a woman just days after I entered the Order. The letter referred to my psychological assessment, carried out in 1979. Eleven of us entering the noviciate had to see a psychologist, to make sure we were suitable for community life and the priesthood. The psychologist did a profile of us and an IQ test. The letter made some wonderful reading for me after these three decades.
The psychological profile was bonkers! Fr Simon (the vocations director) told me later that he had never seen one with so many utter contradictions! But please! The questions were hideous. They would ask things like “what would you prefer doing: keep your room tidy or play football?” I am a messy git at the best of times, and I detest the round-balled game! So which would I chose? “Would you prefer kissing someone of the opposite sex or playing football / keeping your room tidy?” Oh God, now it’s getting rediculous!
Anyway, seeing the IQ results the other week really inspired me. The test was only 6 years after leaving school at 16 with 2 ‘O’ levels and five CSEs. The teachers from Willows High School, Tremorfa, Cardiff, had written me off for any sort of further studies, advising me to stack shelves in Woolworths. But check out that IQ result: 121%! That puts me in the top 12% IQ of the country. For someone from a poor schooling background, that is a totally awesome result. It still inspires me now, and trust me, I’m a doctor! Fr Simon’s letter also said that was the first time ever that the psychologist had categorically said someone was suited to Franciscan community life. More evidence, if any was needed by Mgr Kirkham, that the “call” of the bishop was to be genuine.
My first time in a Catholic church
My mother was a devout and practicing Baptist. So my two sisters, my younger brother and I were equally brought up in a Welsh non-Conformist tradition. Even though we would go to chapel three times on a Sunday, I never felt truly “at home” there. For a “Whitsun treat”, the chapel – Ebenezer Baptist, Pearl St. Roath, Cardiff – would borrow an open-backed lorry – open-backed, no seatbelts, just wobbly benches for us all to sit on and sing hymns as we travelled to our destination! All of us Sunday School children and some of our parents would go on the lorry to a field at St Melon’s, for a day of games and fun. My mother was a bit on the chunky side, let’s say (focus of another Memoire ) and when she tried climbing up on the back of this lorry, one of the “elders” of the church would give her a helping hand up: right on the butt cheek! She used to say to us afterwards “That dirty ol’ buggar pushed me up on the lorry with his hand on my bum!”
At about 15, en route to the Red Cross with my best friend, John, the boy next door, he took me in to the porch of his parish church: St Peter’s, Roath, Cardiff. Mass was being celebrated, in this the largest Catholic church in Wales. We stood in the porch at the back and I totally knew at that moment: “I’m home!” Looking back over my childhood, I can say that when any films came on TV or in the cinema about the Baptists or other Non-Conformists, I’d never be interested. But let it be a film on the Catholic Church and I was glued to the screen! Remember the “Bells of St Mary’s” (1945) with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Berman, or Audrey Hepburn in the 1959 African missionaries’ film: The Nun’s Story; or “The Cardinal”, or still my all-time favourite: The Sound of Music! Who could not just love Reverend Mother singing “Climb Every Mountain”? I still listen to the track on YouTube just for inspiration today!
So I started going to St Peters, on a Thursday, whilst passing by to the Red Cross. I even went to St Alban’s, in Splottlands, on my way to and from school! My mother wasn’t too keen. She said I was too young to make a decision about changing ‘religion’, especially as the Welsh Non-Conformists of those generations were very sceptical of the Catholics. I used to pop in to St Albans a couple of times a day, on my way to school in the morning, maybe at lunch time, and on my way home. Like so many boys of my age, I had loads of facial acne. My mother was convinced it was because I’d picked up a ‘germ’ from someone with dirty hands, dipping my hand in the holy water stoop to bless myself!
One time, John needed to go to confession on our way to Red Cross. So he went in to the confessional box and made me wait in the foyer. The foyer had huge glass windows looking on to the body of the church. When John came out and did his penance, made his act of reparation, he came to the back of the church only to find me missing. He searched inside and out for me, and was totally perplexed as to where I had gone. Then all of a sudden he saw me come out of a confessional box and kneel down to say my prayers! He said
“What are you doing going in there? You’re not even a Catholic! You should have opened the door, shouted in “April fool” and run like hell!”
I eventually became a Roman Catholic aged 19, when studying for SRN (State Registered Nurse) at Neath.
I was ordained priest in St Peters. It was and still is one of the most precious days in my whole life. It was fraught with angst because of the “difficult”, shall I say, Parish Priest that I was stationed with at that time. On the morning of the ordination, the third Saturday after Easter, I was at my mother’s house. I hand washed my car and then drove to Archbishop’s House in Cathedral Road, to give the order of service, belatedly, to the ‘ordinary’ (Archbishop) who was to ordain me. John Aloysius Ward, OFMCap, was a short and dumpy man who reminded me in stature of Winston Churchill. Sadly, he was very good friends with the parish priest whom I lived with for 20 months. This was a disaster for my mental health and wellbeing. No doubt that will be yet another blog some day!
But the ceremony itself was fantastic. Almost all of my family were there that day, a number of whom have died over these intervening years, including, of course, my dearest mother (19 March 1997). A huge number of priests from all over the UK as well as my own archdiocese were there, and my dear friends from the Franciscans (OFM), with whom I had been in formation for 5 years.
The triumphal Easter-tide entrance hymn was “Love Divine all loves excelling”, with a stanza in the concluding verse: “till we cast our crowns before Thee” to which one of the priests said afterwards, “It was like watching a procession of the Crowned Heads of Europe”!
I couldn’t have been more ready for ordination that day, longing to hear those words “we call THIS man, our brother, for the order of priest ….”. I walked in as an ordained deacon, and emerged – ontologically different, as the Catholic Church states – as an anointed priest.
Tu es sacderdos in aeternum … secundum ordinem Melchisedek
After the ceremony, there was loads of kissing and hugging and shaking hands, greeting the church packed with well-wishers. Of course, there was also the very moving and symbolic ‘first blessing’ performed by the newly ordained priest, with the sacred Oil of Chrism no doubt still glowing on my hands! (I jest!) The church bells pealed their full celebratory tones for what seemed like ages, all on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, 9th May 1987. Once the photo opportunities and the reception meal were over, my Franciscan friends, with many other priests and I, all drove from the church, down City Road, tooting our car horns like some sort of ‘big fat Italian wedding’ procession.
A newly ordained priest’s first Mass, technically, is the one he concelebrates at his ordination. Straight after that Saturday, however, I had some busy times ahead for the next few weeks (followed in July by a month in Italy – but that’s another story!).
I celebrated Masses of Thanksgiving at 9am at Caldicott (one half of the Chepstow parish I was based at), then 11 o’clock at St Mary’s Chepstow; then that evening I was principal celebrant at St Joseph’s Neath (where I studied for SRN), about 70 miles away from Chepstow. At 7am the next morning, it was Mass for my dear friends the totally enclosed Poor Clare Nuns at Hillside, Neath. That night I was back at St Peter’s, Roath.
I remember saying a few words of greeting at the beginning of Mass which totally choked me up, especially as my former next door neighbour’s mother, Margaret Gleeson, was sitting there with my mother.
I said – and I remember to this day –
“About 15 years ago, a young, non-Catholic boy, stood in that porch behind you all, watching the priest celebrate Mass, just as you are all doing now this evening. Little could that boy have realised that some 15 years later, he would be standing here before you as your priest. + In the name of the Father …”
I had loads of happy memories at St Peter’s, and yes, I miss it! On Christmas midnight Mass one year, when I was about 19, I was ‘crucifer’ (the one near the front of the procession, carrying the big crucifix). I was so fixed on making sure every step up the marble sanctuary was perfect that I didn’t see the crucifix on top of the pole I was carrying heading straight for the glowing, heavily ornate, low-hanging sanctuary lamp! As the figure of Jesus on the cross latched on to the sanctuary lamp: whoosh! The crucifix was pulled right out of my hands and I had to struggle to entangle it – in view of a congregation packed to the rafters.
Another funny story from St Peters. Christmas midnight Mass would be standing room only – maybe a couple of thousand people in attendance. Some would have come in for Mass straight from the pub. My (non-Catholic) friend Craig loved St Peters. He went there for midnight Mass one year and found the church so full there was nowhere to sit down. He saw an empty space next to a woman with her one leg sticking out into the aisle (obviously she had some sort of medical problem). “Is this seat empty” Craig enquired? With a very grumpy reply, she said: “Yes! But I need it for my leg!” Craig was an airline steward and knew how to deal with grumpy people! He said “If His Holiness the Pope (JPII) was here tonight and needed the seat, could he have it?” To which, she snapped “Of course he could!” “Good” said Craig! “He’s not coming, so I’ll have it” and in he jumped.
When I entered the Franciscan noviciate, aged 22, like the other 10 novices joining at the same time, we thought our promises (vows) of poverty, chastity and obedience would be for life. The clerical promises of a diocesan priest (which is what I was ordained to, at Cardiff), were no less for life. When I made that commitment during the ordination ceremony, I meant it! Little could I have imagined that after 10 years with the Church I would walk away one Sunday afternoon in April 1989. But I’ll tell you more of that another day, if you’re interested.
One last funny story from the ordination ceremony before I finish this blog page. The Archbishop was ‘old school’. He would have been brought up on ordination Masses having the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit) sung at a particular moment before the ‘laying on of hands’. My dear friends from the Franciscans, led by Frs Peter Daly (RIP) and John Dougan, sang this most amazing psalm in between the Bible readings. We originally sang it at our seminary, the Franciscan Study Centre, Canterbury, during the 800th year of the birth of St Francis. It was composed for a musical life of St Francis we put on – Francesco – composed by another student priest from my time there, who sadly died by suicide many years later. The psalm, sung to guitars, flutes and a tambourine was really modern and contemporary, but it was preceded by a couple of lines, in Gregorian chant, of the Veni Creator Spiritus. When Peter and John intoned this, the Archbishop, who was sitting with his eyes closed, waddled to one side of his seat to pull the order of service out from under his derriere and check where we were. No doubt he thought he had fallen off to sleep and missed a whole chunk of the ceremony!
At the time, the 9th May 1987 was one of the happiest days of my life, and I do not regret the ten year journey with the Catholic Church one bit. Having been ordained, and now well out of the priestly ministry, it lets me build on my past and contribute to the “multi-potentialite” person my careers of nursing, priesthood and teaching have enabled me to become. Thank you everyone!
Ad moltos annos plurimosque anno vivat
Other priestly stories still to come … some day!
“If you don’t want babies …”
The ‘angel of death’
Midnight Mass on the HIV ward
The Tarot card reader in Greenwich market