Liverpool Archdiocese's three new priests – Philip Carr, Anthony Taylor and Carl Mugan – explain the calling that none of them could ignore.
'There must have been many times when you thought it would never come but now you are here.' This was a line from Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, delivered as part of his homily during the Ordination Mass on Saturday 7 July for the three new priests of Liverpool Archdiocese, and it could not have been more pertinent.
In the case of all three men welcomed to the priesthood at the Metropolitan Cathedral last month – Philip Carr and Anthony Kelly, both 41, and 55-year-old Carl Mugan – there had been a long, winding road leading them to their vocation.
They had shared the final steps along the way, studying together at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, yet each had experienced a lengthy process of discernment before choosing to embrace the responsibility of life as a priest – a role that the Archbishop described as 'awesome'.
It is intriguing to hear each of the three describe this process – and their shared experience of a voice calling them, over a period of years, which would simply not be silenced.
In the words of Father Philip: 'There was always that thing at the back of my head that said, "I'm not the right person for this" but it got to the point where I thought, "I can't ignore this any more. God's calling me to do this and I need to say yes".
'I kept putting it off and telling myself I wasn't ready to do it. And eventually about five years ago there were just too many signs.' One particular sign, he recounts, came during the Archdiocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes, which he had long attended as a member of the Liverpool Lourdes music group. 'I hadn't mentioned my vocation to anybody and on the last day one of the lads was writing out a petition and he asked if he could write one for me. I said, "Would you mind telling me what it is?" and he said, "That you follow your vocation".'
The memory of another conversation comes to mind as he continues: 'I remember saying to the rector of Valladolid [where he studied for a year together with Father Anthony] that "I just don't know why I've left it so long." His answer to that was, "You've left it till exactly the right time. God's been calling you but when you answered 'yes', that was the exact right time for you to answer." It made me feel a bit better about putting it off.'
While Fr Philip had worked previously in finance, Fr Anthony was a history teacher at St Thomas More Catholic High School in Crewe, before responding to his own call to the priesthood.
'I'd never have been ready to go to seminary at 18,' he reflects. 'I wouldn't have been mature enough or my faith wouldn't have been strong enough to carry me through at the time. Having experienced the world, relationships and different working environments has given me an ability to empathise and relate to people more.'
It was during the Year for Priests in 2009/10 that he heard the words of Pope Benedict XVI and began pondering a different path.
'I'd connected a bit more with my faith and the parish and I felt a real sense of joy going to Mass – Mass became the focal point for the week. We had a letter from Pope Benedict one day instead of a homily and it said, "If you're single maybe have a think about this" and I couldn't quite knock it away. I gradually got in touch with different people like Father Steve Maloney who was then vocations director for Liverpool.'
Father Carl, the oldest of the diocese's new trio of priests – 'the granddad of the three,' he jokes – knows better than anybody that sense of not quite being able to knock it away.
'The vocation came way, way back,' he explains. 'I first met a vocations director 35 years ago. It was Father Tom Lee, who passed away at the beginning of the year. It's been a long time coming but that little voice doesn't ever go away.
'My whole work life has been very pastoral – social housing, work with refugees and asylum seekers and I then became a qualified counsellor,' he continues. From there he trained as a chaplain and worked at St Peter's Catholic High School in Wigan. 'It never left me, though, and I had to do something about it.'
For Fr Carl, the Ordination Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral was a moment to treasure. 'It was absolutely amazing because I was there with the guys who'd travelled through seminary with me, and that meant a lot. In the past they used to do it in the parishes but because we'd done this together, it felt very personal for the three of us.'
As rector of the Beda College, Canon Philip Gillespie was present to participate in the Mass and so too his predecessor, Monsignor Roderick Strange.
For the investiture with the stole and chasuble, Fr Carl was joined on the altar by his son Michael and Father John Causey, parish priest at St Cuthbert's in Wigan, where he has been based when not in Rome.
Performing this role for Fr Anthony, meanwhile, was Father John Johnson, priest at his home parish of St Mary's, Wigan, together with his mother Agnes. His father's passing in January enhanced the emotion of the occasion. 'I remember going over at the sign of peace to shake hands with the family and give them a hug, and that was a very special moment,' he says.
Fr Philip offers his own recollection: 'My mum and dad [Bernadette and John] brought up the chasuble and the stole for the priest but it was Father Grant Maddock who vested me. I've known him for 23 years now and in all that time he's been the one I've been able to lean on and talk to.' The first Mass that followed at his home parish, St Benet's in Netherton – where he has received 'brilliant support' – was a 'humbling' experience.
The trio's first assignments will begin in September. Fr Philip will be an assistant priest at the Metropolitan Cathedral, while Fr Anthony will join Father Tom Neylon at St Julie's, Ecclestone. Fr Carl will become part of the team ministry at St Wilfrid's, Widnes, alongside Father Michael Fitzsimons and Father Joe Bibby.
As Archbishop Malcolm noted in his homily at the Mass on 7 July, a special challenge now awaits – a challenge that, rightly, should bring a sense of awe.
'It's truly amazing to be a priest,' he said, 'because through you and your actions you will bring the people of God into being, baptising them in the name of the Trinity, reconciling them when they're lost, and you'll build them up through bringing God's love to them, through the healing touch of Jesus and celebrating the exchange of vows from holy matrimony. You'll break open the Scriptures for them and show them God's wonder and loving deeds and you'll become a herald of what you read and believe.'
After the long road to get here, another, even more significant, journey has just begun.