When did you first feel called to the priesthood?
I was an altar server in the parish, having started doing that after my First Holy Communion and so I was close to the priest at Mass. Thoughts about Priesthood came to me when I was around around eleven or twelve, largely through the example of a wonderful Parish priest, Fr Gerry Flood. I began to wonder what it would be like to do what he did and it developed from there. I spoke with him about it to begin with and then with my parents.
Were your friends and family supportive of your call?
When a boy of twelve tells his parents he wants to be something, I think it is natural that they might think 'priest this week, fireman next week, accountant the week after that!' So, at the beginning I think they took it quite lightly. Then, when I was 13 I asked if I could go on a Vocations Retreat, so they began to realise that I was thinking quite seriously about Priesthood. They were supportive, keen to allow me to explore where my life might lead. The thoughts of Priesthood did not go away and I went on more retreats – three each year in the years that followed. As things became more serious, my father was very pleased. My mother found it more difficult to accept, I think. I am an only child and she knew that Priesthood would mean no grandchildren.
These times of retreat were really important. I was able to grow in my experience of prayer and the times of silence provided space where I could think as deeply as was possible for me about the step I felt called to take. Sharing my thoughts and questions with the Vocations Director and with others who were on similar journeys was very helpful. Aside from the retreats offered by the Diocese, I also went on retreat with the Carmelites at Aylesford. They were always very kind to me, even though I did not feel called to join them.
I was not at a Catholic school and when people at school learned that I was thinking about Priesthood, some thought it odd, some were quite hostile and close friends were supportive. I remember the school careers master suggesting the University and the Army, but I was very clear with him that I was intending to go to Seminary.
My family lived in the Southwark Diocese, so I went through the selection process while in the Upper VIth and then met with Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy. I left school in July 1976 and began at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, in the August. As my formation continued, my mother came to realise that Priesthood was right for me and any misgivings she may have had disappeared.
Did you have any doubts?
While I never had any serious doubts that the Lord was calling me to Priesthood, I did have doubts about my own capacities and abilities to do all that may be asked of me. There is always a little of that in me, which is perhaps, I think, not such a bad thing. It was certainly the case that as formation at the Seminary continued, I became more sure that the Lord had called me to Priesthood.
Have you been able to maintain the hobbies and interests you had before you became a priest?
Horse Riding was a sports option at school and not being the best rugby player in the world I thought I would give it a try. It has been my chosen sport ever since and I rode consistently until quite recently. I still like to ride, but the opportunities are not so frequent these days. I also enjoy hillwalking and usually manage a little walking in Scotland each year, after my annual retreat at Pluscarden Abbey (where I have been an oblate for 40 years now). A lifelong love of Land Rovers continues and I continue that hobby with a Series III ex-military ‘lightweight’ Land Rover. Reading is a great hobby and I have always been interested in history, especially military history.
What brings you the most joy as a priest?
This is a difficult question, since there is so much that brings joy. The celebration of Mass is always the highpoint of the day and I am blessed to have never found the Mass a matter of routine. Although preaching was a challenge when I was first ordained, it is something that I enjoy doing. In earlier years, when serving in parishes, I found hospital ministry very rewarding indeed. Although as a young priest I used to find schools challenging at times, I came to enjoy school chaplaincy and believe very much in the value of our Catholic schools.
As a bishop, I was privileged to serve as Bishop of the Armed Forces for nearly six years before coming to A&B. Being able to spend time with personnel and their families in so many different parts of the world was a wonderful opportunity. There are always challenges, of course, but there is great joy and peace serving Christ and His Church.
What would be your advice to someone trying to discern their vocation?
There are some key pieces of advice, I think, for those discerning a vocation. The first is to be open to whatever the Lord asks. This means that we must give time of prayer and listening. Listening to the voice of the Lord is not always easy in a very busy and noisy world, so some opportunities for silence are really important.
Talking to others, especially experienced priests, is a great help, because it enables us to learn more and to deepen our understanding of the way of life to which we are called. Talk to one of Vocations Promoters in the Diocese: Fr Aaron Spinelli, Fr Dave King, Fr Simon Hall, Fr John Inglis and Fr Tristan Cranfield. They are great sources of wisdom and experience.
Join the 'Vianney Group' – those across the Diocese who are considering a Vocation to the Priesthood. There are meetings through the year and these are wonderful opportunities to learn more, to pray and to talk with others on the journey.
When the time is right, make contact with the Vocation Director, Fr Con Foley. His task is to guide men on the road to putting in an application for Formation. This usually takes a while and he will accompany you and help you in these important steps. Above all: pray and be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that you will hear and answer the Lord’s call.