It was the 1970s. I was a young priest in London, serving in the parish of St Mary’s, in Clapham Common. The novena to Our Lady took place every Saturday evening, as it still does there. Confessions were regular business in those days. One evening a girl approached me outside the confessional box just wanting to talk to me. We found a quiet corner and she told me that she had just had an abortion. She was a gentle soul and was very lost, alone in London, just over from Ireland, and looking for someone to offer her comfort.
‘Did I do wrong, father?’ she asked me. There was I the young priest, formed in the rules and regulations of the Church and knowing that abortion was wrong, and surprised to be asked the question, but kind by nature and wanting to help this girl. And there was this girl, alone and lost and feeling as vulnerable as could be, just wanting someone to embrace her with some kind of reassurance about her own life and situation. I have never forgotten her in all these years, how lovely she was and how lonely.
Young celibate priest that I was, far removed from the ordinary experiences of life, here I was confronted by someone who was lost and alone, and whose question to me revealed how lost and alone she really felt. I worked my way through priestly life and duties by being kind to people always. I was a very clever lad but cleverness is far from being everything, and I relied on kindness, not cleverness to help me be a priest. Too much kindness can leave you open to being duped by deceitful people, and that happened to me more than once, but kindness remains the great quality and virtue that allows life to flourish and wounded people to be restored.
When I left priesthood to marry and to be with my son, I did not realise at the time that I never left being priestly. That is something that I could not do. When you leave priesthood and apply for dispensation you are ‘reduced to the lay state’, but ‘reduced’ is a poor translation. I went back to my original state as a layperson. And yet, in a spiritual and existential manner that can never be.
‘Priest’ has connotations of someone who presides in liturgy, in religious ceremonies, something that never truly meant very much to me. Whereas, ‘pastor’ although it struck me as being American, truly describes what has happened to me. A pastor is someone who cares about people. That is what has always appealed to me in my life, as it does for some many of us in different forms of work that we do. I grew into a character that looked at other people in a caring manner. I claim no credit for this. Life has done this to me. Life has given me this quality. People, by their trust and confidence in me, have formed me into the pastor that I feel I have become.
I have many people to thank in my life for the way they have formed me into the character that I now am, because they trusted me and confided in me and so enriched my understanding of life by their faith in me.
Today I would like to place on record my memory of that young Irish girl, who walked into the church in Clapham Common so many years ago and asked to speak to me. God bless her now today, wherever she is. Let us help one another to tell our stories and to live.
27 May 2018