What were your misconceptions about Priesthood before discerning it?
Whatever my misconceptions were they are from too long ago for me to remember, I’m afraid!
Who inspired you on your journey?
Paul Wilkins, aged 8 like me at the time, wrote what we called, in those days, a composition. It was about becoming a priest when he grew up. His beautiful accompanying illustration meant that it earned a display place on the classroom wall. I can’t remember what I wrote! But I can still see Paul’s picture in my mind’s eye.
The idea of being a priest stayed with me, but at very varying locations near the back of my mind. I can remember priests from throughout my life whose example really helped me. They were strikingly different characters but they all seemed to have some similar quality which I found appealing. They all had an apparent sense of purpose, a certain degree of calm (although not invariably in the sacristy before Mass, as I recall from my days serving at the altar!) and they seemed to see things in perspective; looking at the bigger picture where others were swept up in much that didn’t really seem to matter, at least to me.
When I finally applied for formation for the priesthood in our Diocese, thirty-six years after admiring Paul’s picture, I found my Parish Priest at the time, Canon David Hopgood, both inspiring and tremendously supportive. He, and his predecessors as my Parish Priests, all gave me invaluable inspiration.
What was your greatest worry when discerning your vocation?
I am not really sure that I had any worries! Of course, I knew I was unworthy, but pretty well every priest was wise enough to say that that is true of them all. I was also moving out of a twenty-one-year career in education, which I had enjoyed immensely. So I would be going from being a home-owner and career focussed professional to a totally different way of life. Twenty-four years ago I made that move. I think now as I did then, that I was blessed to be able to build on those earlier foundations, and to embark on something wonderful and new. I loved what I used to do; I love what I do. So, no worries!
How is the lived reality of your vocation different to how you had perceived it?
One of the greatest gifts that comes with priestly ordination is promising obedience to the Bishop and his successors, which really means promising obedience to God, whose will the Bishop expresses for his priests. This means that I was able to give up all the ambition that went with my career and to put my own personal preferences and prejudices pretty much to the side.
So, for instance, I had no expectation where I would be sent. I had always prayed in seminary for the people to whom one day I would minister as their priest. That means that when Bishops Crispian and Philip have sent me variously to Christ the King in Reading, Saint Saviour and St Thomas of Canterbury in Totland and Newport on the Isle of Wight and, most recently, to St Michael and All Angels, Leigh Park, I have gratefully gone to each Parish knowing that my ministry is blessed by God. I also rejoice I have been praying for the people to whom I am sent for years … even though I didn’t know them until I arrived!
How has living your vocation brought you joy?
I had joy in pretty well every day of my teaching career, for all that there are frustrations that can go with such demanding work. Children and colleagues were always sources of great happiness; well let’s rephrase that to were usually sources of great happiness! So too, there is usually one moment of sheer joy in every day of my priesthood and usually many moments more. Some examples in atypical day would be:
• Celebrating Mass
• Speaking with a parishioner about whatever really matters for them, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
• Reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or the poetry of Charles Causley, with a group of children in our Parish school and seeing them completely swept up by it all,
• Anointing someone in the local hospice or hospital as they gather up the threads of this life
• Preaching a homily to hundreds of our secondary school students,
• Planning the wedding of a young couple and hearing the wonder of their story and the power of their love
• Baptising a a squirming and squealing baby and reminding the parents that the youngster is always welcome to come and cry in its Father’s house,
• Conducting a funeral and seeing the family smile as they hear again the recollections of their loved one, which they had first shared with me when we sat and remembered someone who was so important … and unique,
• Hearing the beauty of prayer sung and played by singers and musicians whose hearts yearn to give glory to God and joy to their neighbour
And, please; come back and ask me on another day. I will have another different list for you again!
What have been the highlights of living out your vocation?
The highlights are those wonderful moments when I have been with other people and we have all known that we are together before God. It can be a conversation with just one person. It can be a glorious celebration of the Chrism Mass, or a priestly ordination, in a packed St John’s Cathedral. It can be the moment when I know that some one person really feels God’s love. It can be when I am with hundreds of other people praising and thanking God for that love. A particular highlight for me has been working as the Diocesan Vocations Director for nearly fifteen years. I have had the privilege of accompanying men on their way to priesthood; that’s quite an extraordinary thing to be allowed to do.
What would you say to someone else considering Religious Life?
What would you say to someone else considering following Jesus in this vocational calling? Three things:
1) Pray now for the people to whom you may one day minister.
2) E-mail Fr John Cooke here or call 01329 318869 or me, Canon Gerard Flynn, Vocations Director, via e-mail here or call 023 9248 4323 – and do it sooner rather than later, although that may sound rich coming from me.
3) Look forward to the fullness of life that God wants for you!