This interview first appeared in the November 2015 edition of the Westminster Record.
Five men currently discerning a calling to the priesthood recently visited one of our retired priests of the diocese, Fr Philip Cross. He answers their questions about the priesthood and his own priestly journey.
How long have you been a priest?
I’m 79 and was ordained over 40 years ago. I look back on priesthood and see a thread all the way through it, which I think is the Lord leading me. I had my ups and downs but I became a priest, and thank God for that. You get a lot of joy out of it, but you also get sadness and sorrow, and you make mistakes. I look back on the mistakes I made and repent, because they can be very damaging to the person you have injured by your bad decision or lack of wisdom. On the other hand I look back at many joyous events or things which happened simply because someone banged on the door with a problem. This is where the bulk of the priest’s work is done and it’s graced by God, he even graces the mistakes.
How did you become a priest?
I was brought up in a Catholic family and when I was about 14 I wanted to know more. In our house we had a lot of Catholic literature, including St Thomas Aquinas and CTS booklets. One of the threads drawing me forward through life has been the Mass and the mystery of the Eucharist. The wonder of it, the awesomeness and yet it is so ‘homely’.
A new parish opened in Garston where the priest was a very kind man with a deep love for God and I helped him out. I learnt through this the importance of parish. It is where people come together and where we know the Lord in Word and Sacraments.
I decided to become a priest after my parents had died in my mid-20’s and I was then free to leave the family business. I’d had a sense of vocation but I never admitted this until my father died. Finally I talked to my parish priest, after which I cried all the way home with relief and joy. With his encouragement I went to see Cardinal Heenan and his panel of six clerics. They decided to send me to Osterley, after which I went to Allen Hall, then in Hertfordshire.
Where have you served since being ordained?
My first parish was Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, very big, demanding, full of people of different nationalities, including refugees from a variety of countries. We had a school and a hospital, as well as regular visitation. It would go into the newsletter which roads were to be visited, and we would plod round and visit the people.
After five years in Kensington, I was sent to Garston which was my home parish, very different to Kensington, full of big housing estates, with a lot of people self-employed.
After five years in Garston I was appointed parish priest of Kenton, a very big, busy parish, with a convent, two secondary schools and a primary school. We also picked up Northwick Park hospital, which was a huge job. I enjoyed my time there very much, but towards the end I was struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of work. Fortunately the Cardinal asked me to go to St Bede’s in Croxley Green, a much smaller parish. That was a very happy experience indeed and I look back on those years with great gratitude: it was like a family there.
Do you think of yourself now as a retired priest?
A priest never really retires. He gives up the ministry in the parish but you don’t retire because you are still faced with the mystery of God. And that is a journey into truth which lasts until your dying breath.
What advice would you give to those discerning a calling to the priesthood?
As Jesus says; ‘Do not be afraid!’ Of course the priesthood has its anxieties and challenges, but as a way of life it is a wonderful privilege. To be so intimate with people, to share their joys and sorrows is a great honour. It all comes together in the Eucharist, it is a great mystery and yet something so real and present. To celebrate Mass is always a matter of awe and surprise.
My final thought is that whatever you do, you must do it with love. That’s what enables you to do it. And pray for the gift of perseverance that once you have placed your hand on the plough you may not give up but may keep on to the end. God bless you all!