A new Bishop for Liverpool

By Simon Hart

For Canon Tom Neylon, his upcoming appointment as the Archdiocese of Liverpool’s new Bishop ‘came out of the blue’. It began with a call from the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, summoning him to a meeting in Wimbledon. There, at the nuncio’s home, he learned that his days as a parish priest were over and that a new role beckoned as the ninth Auxiliary Bishop of Liverpool.

Currently parish priest at St Wilfrid’s in Widnes, Canon Tom will be ordained as a bishop on Friday 3 September at the Metropolitan Cathedral, but already he has gained a sense of the fresh challenge that awaits. ‘Since it was announced, I’ve had letters from bishops around the country and they’ve been very supportive, saying they’re praying for me and looking forward to meeting me and working together,’ he reflected. ‘I suppose that is encouraging as well. You’re part of a team of people that have got responsibility for the Church in England and Wales and seem to have a good way of working together. Before, the focus would be on the parish primarily and then the deanery you are part of and then the diocese, and the bishop has a broader horizon to be looking out on.’

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon underlined his own confidence in Canon Tom when announcing his appointment on 6 July. He said: ‘When I came to the Archdiocese in 2014, Canon Tom was already a Vicar General and trustee of the Archdiocese and his excellent pastoral and administrative skills have been invaluable to me in my ministry as Archbishop. He’ll now be able to use those God-given talents at a higher level in assisting me in taking the Church forward in the coming years.’

According to the Archbishop, the 63-year-old’s experiences of pastoral ministry will serve him well. Canon Tom’s first appointment in 1982 was as assistant priest at St Cuthbert’s, Wigan, and four years later he moved to join the team ministry serving Skelmersdale. In 1996 he became parish priest at St Julie’s, Eccleston before filling the same post at St Teresa’s, Devon Street, and English Martyrs, Haydock. He also served as Dean of St Helens and as a member of the Chapter of Canons of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Since September 2020, he has been at St Wilfrid’s. ‘He has always offered excellent pastoral care and been alongside his parishioners in times of need and times of joy – qualities which will serve him and the whole Archdiocese well in the coming years,’ said Archbishop Malcolm.

Brought up in St Oswald’s Parish in Padgate, Warrington, where he attended the local primary school and then English Martyrs’ Secondary School, Orford, the Bishop-elect began training for the priesthood at St Joseph’s College, Upholland, at the age of 16. He had started exploring his vocation as an altar boy in his early teens when Father Bill Cook, a curate in his home parish, asked him, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’. ‘It was a casual question but it sowed the seed,’ recalled Canon Tom, who completed his training at St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, Durham.

However joyful next month’s ordination as a Bishop proves to be, it will not be on the same scale as his ordination as a priest in 1982. After all, the then 24-year-old was ordained by Pope St John Paul II in front of 250,000 people in Heaton Park, Manchester, on Monday 31 May – the day after the Pontiff’s visit to Liverpool.

‘The focus of the Papal visit was the sacraments so they made a decision about having priests ordained at Heaton Park,’ Canon Tom remembered. ‘There were six of us who were diocesan priests and another six who belonged to religious congregations. All the ritual that goes with ordination was shared among the 12 of us – the questions were asked and collectively we responded together.

‘On the Monday morning, which was a bank holiday, the Pope went by helicopter to Heaton Park in north Manchester. There was quite a gathering of people and, as you can imagine, everyone looked like a little dot really!’ And there, among the dots, was a coachload from St Oswald’s. ‘We were allowed a coach of family and friends, all we had to do was submit names and addresses,’ he explained.

‘The visit itself was exceptional. It was the first time a Pope had come to the country, and there was intense coverage. But it all seemed to come together. Once I got over the initial surprise and shock, it was just a case of “Let’s go with it”.’

Thirty-nine years on, this ordination ‘will be a bit more intimate’, added Canon Tom with a laugh. ‘It will be an opportunity for the diocesan family to gather, which they’ve not been able to do for 18 months because of the restrictions that the pandemic has brought. It’s an opportunity for priests from the diocese to come together. All the parishes have been circulated with an invitation, and then family and friends I’ve known for a good part of my life.’

Once he has been ordained, his work as a Bishop will involve helping to implement the Archdiocesan pastoral plan which is being prepared in response to the Synod. When confirming his appointment, Archbishop Malcolm noted that Canon Tom’s ordination date of 3 September was the Feast of Pope St Gregory the Great – ‘a man who reorganised Church life and administration and sent Augustine and his monks to evangelise the English’ – and added: ‘It is a fitting day to ordain a Bishop who will be charged with the tasks of administration and evangelisation in this part of England. I know that Bishop-elect Tom will accept these tasks graciously and fulfil them with diligence and care for others.’

The Archbishop went on: ‘Bishop-elect Tom will fulfil a vital role in implementing our plan so that we can better serve the people of our Archdiocese. It is a challenging time but one which offers a bright future for Catholics in this part of northwest England as we continue to be “together on the road”. Bishop-elect Tom will, I know, be always walking alongside our people on that journey.

Canon Tom, who is a member of the Archdiocesan Council, said: ‘It is about trying to continue the process and be faithful to what the people voted for the at the Synod on 19 June, to try to shape all that into a plan. Some things may take further discussion locally because there is no “one size fits all”. It is being faithful to the strapline of “walking together” –  we walk with people in parishes, the various departments within the diocese with responsibility for different aspects of diocesan life.’

And, he promised, the fact he will be wearing a Bishop’s mitre by the time the pastoral plan is launched on the first Sunday of Advent will change nothing regarding his own approach. ‘It’s about encouraging people,’ he said. ‘We all have to take some responsibility. I think the days of cracking whips are over really!’ Instead, he will take his cue from one of the Synod’s 19 recommendations. ‘One of the strong themes underpinning the recommendations is that of service. It is in this spirit that I hope to live my life as an Auxiliary Bishop.’