Ordained as the Archdiocese's newest priest on 15 July, Father Michael Barrett explains why he chose to embark on a new life in the Church at 61.
For Father Michael Barrett, the newest priest in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, there is one question he keeps hearing from those who have known him longest. "The people that have always known you as Michael suddenly have to rejig their thoughts and some of the family have said, 'What are we calling you now?'."
Given that he has filled other significant roles in his 61 years, this uncertainty surrounding his newfound status as 'Father' is easy to comprehend. After all, Father Michael has been a husband, parent and head teacher, yet, as he explains, his path to the priesthood was one that, slowly but surely, he felt compelled to take in the years following the death of his wife Jackie – and which will now enable him to put to use many of the life lessons already learned.
Father Michael, who was ordained on 15 July, said: "A journey of faith for everybody is one with twists and turns, ups and downs – it's the journey of life really. My thoughts about the priesthood didn't grow until the passing away of my wife 12 years ago.
"I had thoughts about the priesthood because of the nature of a) my faith and b) the people that have surrounded me in my profession as a primary teacher in nearly 40 years of teaching and the importance of faith in running a Catholic school as a head teacher.
"I wanted to look at whether I could support people spiritually and pastorally in parishes and that is how the thought grew. It had to be right in terms of overcoming my own and our own bereavement in terms of being a married man, having two grown-up daughters and looking towards their support. I'm thankful to have two wonderful daughters, Angela and Christina, who've supported me along with my sister Maureen and her family and obviously my late wife's family. They have been equally courageous. Otherwise I wouldn't have made the step I have towards the priesthood."
These steps led to his ordination by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon at St Mary's, Leyland – the only ordination in our diocese this summer – and for Father Michael, the next step is to begin a new role as curate based with Father Philip Inch at St Oswald's in Longton and serving also the parishes of St Teresa's and St Mary Magdalen's in Penwortham.
At his Mass of Ordination, Archbishop Malcolm alluded to the understanding of family that life has afforded Father Michael, though this is not just through his own personal experiences; another layer of understanding comes from his long career in teaching. He was at St Anne's Catholic Primary School in Leyland for 23 years before retiring and embarking on his training for the priesthood at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome.
"As a teacher you're obviously keen to work alongside families and work with them for the growth, in educational terms, of their children," he said. "This may be another opportunity to continue that, to develop and to support them spiritually and to engender that sense of family within each of the parishes."
Places of meaning
A native Londoner, Father Michael had initially begun his teaching career at Blessed Dominic Barberi in his home city. In 1986 he moved to the north-west and took the post of deputy head at St Teresa's in Penwortham – a move taken to be closer to his wife's family in Ormskirk. These are two places that featured on the map of a momentous couple of weeks in July.
"I was deputy head teacher at St Teresa's many moons ago before I went on to St Anne's so on my last Sunday as a deacon I went to St Teresa's to actually help as a deacon with Fr Philip and meet parishioners there – and there were some who I'd taught, some who were parents at the school and some fellow teachers as well. My wife Jackie also taught at the school. Her impact is well remembered."
If he has an immediate connection with that parish, the parish where he said a Thanksgiving Mass shortly after his ordination holds an even stronger resonance. "I said a Thanksgiving Mass in St Anne's in Ormskirk as that is where my wife is buried and where I was married in 1980."
Father Godric Timney, the parish priest of St Anne's, is just one name on a list of clergy to whom Father Michael feels thankful. From the initial stages of exploring his vocation to his studies in Rome via pastoral placements in the Archdiocese, a significant number of guiding lights have illuminated his way.
"I talked about it initially with Father Stephen Maloney, the then vocations director, and I also spoke to my parish priest, Father Gerald Anders at Our Lady Help of Christians in Tarleton, which is a very close family parish, and also Father Jonathan Cotton, the Benedictine parish priest at St Mary's, Leyland," he explained. There was support later from Father James Preston, the current vocations director, along with the priests and parishioners encountered during his placements.
"I was at Holy Family in Southport with Father Philip Gregory, with Father Kevin McLoughlin at Holy Name and St Philomena's, Fazakerley, and last summer as a deacon at St Margaret Mary's with Father Mark Moran. The parishioners in all these parishes have been so supportive too."
In Rome, meanwhile, two rectors at the Beda College lent their support – first, Monsignor Roderick Strange and then Canon Philip Gillespie, our very own Pic columnist. For Father Michael, the return to the classroom as a student in Rome was a challenge, but one to enjoy. "I remember my daughter Angela once saying to me, 'I didn't know these things' when she started studying A level Law and when it came to deepening my knowledge of religion through the study of our faith, you discover its richness."
It was in Rome in June last year, at St Paul's Outside The Walls, that Father Michael was ordained as a deacon. "The ordination at the tomb of St Paul gives you a sense of the historical perspective of our faith," he said. It was in Rome too that he served as a deacon alongside Pope Francis during a service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Last month's ordination took place closer to home. "I always tried to come back and visit Leyland and St Mary's," he explained. "Father Jonathan had said, 'You are going to be ordained here, Michael, aren't you?' 'Well, okay, if we get there.'"
Now he has got there, and it is not only family, with their doubts over what to call him, who have been adjusting to Father Michael's change of status. His old friends in the Ormskirk Catenian Association have had to rewrite their rule book to accommodate him. "Now they have got a priest they've had to change their rules to allow me to stay as a Catenian," he said of the lay association. "It hadn't occurred before so it was an irony, yes – we'll pray for vocations but once you're a priest you can leave now! This has now changed. The Ormskirk circle have lived up to the Catenian motto of strengthening family life through friendship and faith. Their prayers and friendship have been invaluable."