Fr Richard Nesbitt spoke to Deacon David Burke, as he prepared for ordination to the priesthood on 27 June.
As you come to the end of your time at the Beda College in Rome, how do you look back on your time in seminary?
It’s been a remarkable four years! One of my most vivid memories was of the day the Vice Rector came into the photocopier room in my second year and said, ‘Have you heard the news that the Pope has resigned?’ Being around Rome during that time was extraordinary. Then a month or so later, the evening we received the ministry of Acolyte was the night that we learnt of the election of Pope Francis so we all rushed to St Peter’s to be with him and the crowds of people on that historic night. That’s one of the things about being a seminarian in Rome; you really do experience the universal Church. The Beda College itself, which has been my home for these last four years, is a very international community with students from every continent except South America. That in itself has been a very powerful lesson for me.
On a more local, ‘Westminster’ level, it was a real highlight to be here when Cardinal Vincent received his red hat and then took possession of his titular church as a cardinal. I’ve also been very blessed over the last 12 months of my diaconal year that I have served as a deacon in St Peter’s and also in St Paul’s Basilica.
And any challenges?
Yes, there have certainly been challenges. It is hard sometimes being so far away from family and friends. You can’t just call someone and meet up, so you need a kind of emotional stamina while you are here. But I really do thank God for these four years and for the Cardinal’s wisdom in sending me here.
In what ways do you think you have grown most during these four years?
The Beda is a college for men with later vocations and so inevitably we all bring a lot of baggage and life experience with us. I am 40 later this year so this time has really allowed me to reflect on the map of my life, of the journey travelled and to see God’s hand more clearly in that. Before I came out here I had worked as the Youth Director for the Diocese, which I loved but it had been non-stop. I have always been a doer but seminary has helped me to become more reflective. The time in Rome has given me the opportunity to stand back, to understand myself better and to learn from others.
In many ways it is not easy suddenly being thrown into a community with more than 60 other men from around the world. That took me way beyond my comfort zone. But this experience has allowed me to discern God’s will and whether or not He wants me to become a priest. I felt from an early age that God was calling me to the priesthood, but I sat on the fence for many years. I think I also didn’t feel worthy of the priesthood and I was anxious about what seminary might be like, maybe a kind of adult boarding school. But these four years have shown me that we grow best when we are in community as we learn together, often through little everyday things. I have allowed God into my life in a new way while I have been here. I have learnt that I have many God-given talents and that they have been given to me for a purpose. And what this time has really confirmed for me, through the help and support of the formation team here and through my own prayer, is that God’s purpose for my life is indeed for me to be a priest. And that is a great joy!
Now you return to England to be ordained to the priesthood with four other men from our Diocese on 27 June. How do you feel as that day draws ever nearer?
I think I feel a lot calmer than I did a year ago when I was ordained a deacon! It has been a really blessed year and now I feel ready for my new life as a priest. This is not really about me at the end of the day, it is about the Lord working through me and the last year has really deepened my trust in Him.
I am sure as well that in many ways my real formation will begin on 27 June when I am immediately thrown into the deep end of life as a priest. But I know that I will not be in this alone. I have been very humbled by the number of family and friends who are coming to the ordination who have journeyed with me over the years and have been an incredible support to me. I know that I will need them and most of all I will need God’s constant care for the years ahead, but I know He will be there for me.
From September I will become the assistant priest at Burnt Oak. I was able to visit the parish a couple of weeks ago and meet Canon Colin Davies, the parish priest, and some of the parishioners who had heard I was coming. They gave me a tremendous welcome which really touched me. They obviously love their priests! It gave me an awareness of a whole new life opening up with all kinds of new relationships awaiting me. I will do my best to serve them faithfully and I know that I will learn so much from them all in the years ahead.
Would you have any advice for anyone reading this who is discerning the same call to the priesthood?
Just be brave and trust in God as He wants the best for us so just trust and let Him lead you step by step. Most people who come to seminary are guided to know that God is indeed calling them to become a priest and their journey through seminary prepares them for this life of ministry. But there are a few for whom it becomes clear that priesthood is not God’s deepest desire for their lives. But they get to know themselves so much better because of their time in seminary and they become a better husband, a better single person. I can see that if someone has a good job, a nice car… that these can be difficult to leave behind. But these things ultimately don’t satisfy us. Really giving your life to God, whatever He asks of you, is the path to true happiness. So be brave and let God show you what that deepest happiness is to be for you.