Monday, 10 June 2013
Why I Became a priest
At an event I recently attended I was asked by a lady I have not seen for 30 years why I became a priest. I mumbled off a quick response because I was about to leave and anyway, it’s not so interesting a story. But she is not alone in asking "where I come from", and I have been asked to blog my story even in simple style. So here goes...
My father, Joss, was at first a coal miner, then a builder; my mother, Jean, was a home-maker and a part-time barmaid. I was born the fourth of six living children (we had a brother who died before birth). My three sisters were all in the caring professions; my elder brother was a builder, my younger brother a cobbler.
We were not a religious family; attending Church played no part in our family life, and yet my paternal grandmother attended chapel on Sunday evenings and my maternal grandfather was a devout Catholic. When I asked why we didn’t go to Church I was told “we don’t have to; we’re not Catholics”. I instinctively knew though, that if God is God, we should be going.
Still, to correct my bad behaviour mum would say, “Now Gary, God is watching”. This can present God as the great policeman in the sky and make a person judgemental and cruel towards the person rather than the sin (Peter Sutcliffe is said to have been influenced by his mothers faith and that it was this which caused his murderous escapades -but one has to point out that the same idea about good and bad girls permeated society at the time and did not turn all men out like Peter Sutcliffe, so there must have been something wrong in his wiring from the start). I would say that mum reminding me that God was watching did give me a sense of His all-pervading presence and of my accountability to Him for how I treated others. I was in any case very spiritual and received my own bible at the age of five; a large Children’s Edition which took you all the way from Genesis to Revelation -and which was not too badly ‘dumbed down’.
By the age of eight I had viewed my grandfather’s slides from Lourdes and watched ‘The Song of Bernadette’ on TV. Gaining a great love for Our Lady I longed to go to Lourdes -and longed to be a Catholic because I saw that only if God was remembered would people make sure they did the good and avoided the wrong. So I began asking myself what I could do to make folk more conscious of God. It was a dull afternoon when I considered nailing two pieces of wood together to make a huge cross for the garden, but I knew dad would be unimpressed, so I looked for something other way of achieving my aim. It was then that Father Smith passed the garden and I knew the answer: “I’ll be a priest, because when people see a priest they have to think about God!” I went straight indoors and announced to my Protestant family, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a priest”. But I was advised, “Just be a Vicar and that way you can still get married”. My response was, “No; I want to be a proper priest”. Years later after recounting this story while preaching in a Carmelite convent one of the nuns wrote to me saying, “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you....”.
Anyway, apart from learning to say the Rosary at the age of 12 at the hand of my mum, nothing came of my priestly idea until I was 20 when mum heard the local Catholic Church was going on pilgrimage to Lourdes. Since her father had told her “If you ever get the chance to go to Lourdes Jean, take it”, she had added our names to the list of pilgrims. I considered that if I was going to Lourdes I had to go as a Catholic, so I began my instructions. I was received into the Church on May 29th, and in Lourdes on June 6th.
Spiritually, my instruction period was not an easy one. Each week while on my way there I would be sure I was doing the wrong thing and resolve to end my instruction that night. Yet every week on the way home I was so enthralled I determined I would be back next week and at Mass weekdays and Sundays. My Reception night brought the same feelings, but more intense: “What are you playing at Gary?” Still, I went ahead...
As I was unemployed at the time I threw myself into parish life: gardening, visiting with the SVP, doing one-to-one contact with the Legion of Mary, functioning as a Reader, and among the very first batch of Extra-ordinary lay ministers commissioned in the Diocese. Mind you, I could be a better Catholic today: I am too lazy at times, and I have to work control of my temper. Yes, the spirit is willing (or is it?), but the flesh is weak (or simply not brought to heel).
I then began training for a professional life, and though I had a wonderful fiancé at the time, the irksome idea about priesthood was still nagging, so I decided to do the right thing and apply for seminary. Having done so, I was ordained in 1993.
I have to say my faith leaves me somewhat isolated from my family when moral issues are under discussion; at such times I feel only half-heard (if that) because I am “religious”, since the prejudiced view of today is that religion is oppressive. In my experience, it is those who claim to be open-minded who are narrow and oppressive because they dismiss any religious view out of hand, which is oppressive of the religious person. It seems very hard for non-Catholics to grasp that we Catholics judge actions and situations, not people; and that we actually judge the acts and situations only as to whether they are a help or hindrance to their salvation. Certainly we warn against things that we see as harmful to their soul, but without judging the person –much like a physician warns against smoking without judging the smoker.
Yet our moral positions are in accord with reason and forced upon no one, and in a free society we have the right to live by our values and bring them into the public forum so that society can make its decisions from a wider information base than is possible when God and faith are excluded by design. But we are not welcomed at the table of discussion, because we promote a culture of life.
Secular society excludes us because society promotes a culture of death:
the death of social cohesion by promoting the “what is right for me” attitude
the death of children by abortion
the death of those who are disabled or in chronic pain by euthanasia
the death of natural sex by use of contraception and by homosexual acts
the death of stable family life by extra-marital sex and cohabitation.
In today’s world, death is the answer to every difficulty, while pleasure is all focused on allowing us to have sex with whoever we want, however we want it, and whenever we want. It is called by society ‘sexual freedom’; in reality it is sexual licensee, and has created a society of chaos where those who suffer are inevitably the children who, if they are not killed by abortion, come into unstable relationships in an unstable world.
Catholicism on the other hand is a culture of life:
life via sex with all its life-giving powers intact;
life via defence of unborn children, since without life we cannot access any other right;
life in a stable society by the protection of natural marriage
life by the kind of compassion that cares for the life of disabled and the terminally ill.
Recognising that we cannot access any human right unless we are alive, we know that the fundamental right is the right to life, so the protection of all human life is required from womb to tomb. After all, the embryo has its own DNA from conception so it is not part of the mother -even the placenta protects the unborn child from harmful impurities in the mother’s blood -it therefore recognises her as a potentially unjust aggressor upon the life of the child.
In line with biology, the only natural family unit is that of father and mother together with their offspring. Two fathers or two mothers is impossible in nature; it is unnatural, and we cannot have a right to that which is unnatural. Yet we do not denounce homosexual persons, only homosexual acts. The judgement of persons is rigorously denounced.
We protect marriage as the life-long, natural union of one man and one woman expressed in the act of copulation, recognising that children have a right to grow and be nurtured in a stable, committed love between the man and woman who brought them into the world. Today’s society is one of instability and chaos, wherein people parent the child of another while leaving their own to be parented by someone else, resulting in difficulties and tensions for all involved. Yes some marriages can be destructive and abusive, and we do not require that people stay in abusive marriages, we just don’t support second or third marriages: that makes marriages as useless to the child as is the convenience of cohabitation.
Our teaching on sex as being only in marriage is supported by biology: since what is natural to us cannot harm us and STI’s have increased as the sexual revolution has progressed, we have empirical evidence that serial sex partnerships are unnatural to man; we are simply not built like animals who mate by passion. Our unique ability is the ability to reason, and we use reason to control our passions, not to justify them.
Contraception and homosexual acts both exclude the propagation of life so they are intrinsically anti-life.
We see children as a gift, not ‘products’ to be acquired artificially (by IVF) to fulfil a person’s emotional need to have a child. No one has a right to a child because we cannot have a right to a person, so IVF, surrogacy and sperm/egg donation are all rejected and natural conception promoted (medication to stimulate follicle production is accepted, since these medications simply stimulate follicle production).
We promote compassionate care of the sick and disabled, by which we exercise and demonstrate our humanity. Euthanasia is killing, not caring, and our duty is to end suffering, not to end the person who suffers. The logic of ending suffering by ending those who suffer means we could kill the poor to end the suffering of poverty.
I know our moral teachings do not sit well with today’s society which thinks that because sex is natural it is OK to be like other animals and go from one sexual partner to another. But that is not so; we are not like the animals and do not have their biological defences which allow them to engage in serial sexual encounters. How do we know this? Because as promiscuity has grown so too have STD’s; from around four types in the 1950’s to over 50 kinds today. We Catholics see things at a much deeper level than the passions and the instincts, which we seek to control rather than be controlled by them.
All in all, we reject contraception because it refuses to cooperate with life; we reject abortion and euthanasia because they intentionally end human life; we reject contraception and homosexual acts because they use the life-giving act in ways that exclude life.
Certainly my faith in God is an inner experience which I cannot give to another since inner experiences are by nature unique to each person, yet I see such evidence in creation for the reality of God that I wonder how a non-believer can remain unbelieving. After all, it is the very laws of nature that make scientific investigation possible: the mathematics which underpin the universe allow physics to exist as a science; the stable workings of the cell and DNA allow biology to exist as a science, and the stability of the periodic table allows for chemistry to exist as a science. All the balance and design in physics, chemistry and biology point to a mind and a power greater than ourselves; greater even, than our combined efforts. I take great pleasure in pointing out to folk that it was a Catholic priest-scientist who discovered the Big Bang (George Lemaitre); a Catholic priest-scientist who founded the science of genetics (Gregor Mendel); a Catholic priest-scientist who is regarded as the founder of aeronautics (Francesco Lana de Terzi); a Catholic scientist who is regarded as the founder of modern chemistry (Antoine Lavoisier) and a catholic priest-scientist who is regarded as a father of cytology in discovering the albuminoid membrane (J.Baptiste Carnoy). Further, over 30 craters of the moon of named after the Jesuit astronomers who charted them. Surely Catholics can be very proud of their contribution to, and promotion of, modern science.
Not only that, but there is such beauty in creation that God cannot be anything but magnificent. Certainly illness, disability and tragedies darken our lives and are heavy crosses to bear, but most of the ugliness in life is man-made: violence, theft, adultery, abandonment, duplicity are all the absence of a goodness that is otherwise present in creation: the goodness of respect for a person’s life and property; the good of faithfulness to (and care for) one’s partner; honesty of life. All of these provide for a stable, supportive society -and are the core of the Ten Commandments.
Now I know Popes, priests and consecrated persons have perpetrated grave scandals -it because of such scandals that it is hard to live the priestly life today since we have all been tarnished by their betrayals and become the subject of personal abuse in the streets. But there were grave scandals when I worked in the Health Service too: Nurse Allit killing children on her ward, and Dr Shipman killing patients in the community. Yet just as Dr Shipman and Nurse Allit do not make the NHS bad, so scandalous clergy do not make the Church bad; it remains a good, true, and holy Mother of souls.
What gives me the strength to go on when I have my faults; when our goodness to others is seen as 'wet' and abused; when society is so set against Catholic morality (and thus against Catholics)? What keeps me going is the Sacraments, especially Holy Mass and Confession. Having been given a share in God’s life in Baptism, Holy Mass then places me at the foot of Christ’s Cross where He makes present His act of supreme love: “This is My Body, which is given up for you”, He then feeds me with His own Body and Blood in Holy Communion as a pledge of eternal life, happiness and peace: “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood lives in Me, and I live in Him...Whoever eats Me will draw life from Me”. Meanwhile, Confession applies to my soul the very grace of salvation which Christ won for me on the Cross. Finally, when I am ill and about to leave this world, I hope to receive the Sacrament of Anointing which prepares one’s soul for entry into the presence of God.
So yes, I prize God who has given us a wonderful creation and a beautiful Faith. Yes, I am humbled by the privileges He has given to me in that as a priest I daily stand at the altar to offer His Holy Sacrifice in the Mass; I reconcile my fellow sinners to Him in Confession; I bless the union of man and woman in the bond of Matrimonial love; I support those in life’s crisis events and Anoint with Holy Oil my fellow Catholics who are about to leave this world. Truly, ‘He who walks on the wings of the wind’ has made me a servant-child, someone who goes before Him ‘to prepare His way before Him’; ‘to make known to His people their salvation’ –ultimately, to make known the love of Him from above ‘who visits us like the dawn from on high’.