The Journey Travelled... by Bishop John Sherrington, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster
In June 2012 I celebrated 25 years of priesthood. When and where was my vocation nurtured? There are different answers: in heaven in God’s plan, in baptism when I was presented at the font on a January day in 1958, through God’s call in particular moments or people, the prayer and quiet faith of loving grandparents, family, the influence of very diverse priests in my parish... The answer is in all of these ways but the pattern only becomes apparent in time. I was always interested in my Catholic faith and ready to question and explore it. I began to think about priesthood explicitly whilst at university and began to read to deepen my faith. I remember books on theology and creation, faith, the vision of Archbishop Romero, the excitement of the National Pastoral Congress, praying on the train to London to be at an 8am Mass at Westminster Cathedral, being present in the Cathedral when Pope St John Paul II celebrated Mass in 1981, and finally asking Bishop James McGuinness to consider me for priesthood in Nottingham Diocese.
Two other very significant moments were travelling to Lourdes with a Jumbulance group in 1980. It was my first visit to Our Lady’s shrine. I travelled there very sceptically; more concerned about attending to others’ needs than my own but in some mysterious way I returned home sure that God was calling me to be a priest. A second moment was a retreat in February 1981 at St Beuno’s in North Wales when the grounds were full of snowdrops. On a short walk, I came across a dead bird, already pecked by scavengers and starting to decay. I can still remember thinking: that will be me one day, what am I going to do with my life?
I was ordained on 13 June 1987 and then studied for a licence in Moral Theology in Rome. Between 1990 and 2004 I lectured and worked at All Hallow’s College, Dublin and then St John’s seminary, Wonersh, where I became Director of Studies. Later on a 30-day retreat when I was between seminary ministry and moving to a parish, the following text was given to me: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”(Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ).
Those words really spoke to me. It is this experience of falling in love with God to which we must introduce people and let God do the rest! As we enter deeper into relationship with God, we encounter the paschal mystery and through it we discover the compassion of God breaking into our lives so that we can be compassionate to others: “Every high priest is taken from among men and is appointed to act on their behalf in relationship with God, and offer gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can sympathise with those who are ignorant or who have gone astray, because he too is subject to the limitations of weakness.” (Heb.5:1-2)
After the structure of seminary life, the unpredictability of parish life was challenging at first. The encouragement given to future priests to pray, read, make retreats, establish appropriate boundaries now had to be lived out in a more complex way. Over seven years in two parishes, Our Lady of Lourdes, Derby and Good Shepherd, Nottingham, I received many blessings and so many people allowed me into their lives, especially at moments of sacramental encounter - baptisms, marriages, funerals, sickness and struggle.
A very important part of any vocational journey is the chance to rest – a chance to be renewed physically, emotionally and spiritually. Over 25 years, places of refreshment and relaxation have been walks in the Dublin mountains, strolling along Dollymount Strand, climbing the Hill of Howth, rambling along the Greensand Way in Surrey, and later walks in the Derbyshire Dales often centred towards and away from “The George” at Alstonfield. I enjoy walking with others and on my own. The rhythm clears my head, restores perspective and re-energises me. It is important for all of us to have our own ways of finding rest and renewal.
Reflecting on 25 years of priesthood is an opportunity to give thanks. In June 2011 I received the greatest of surprises when I was asked to become one of the Auxiliary Bishops for Westminster diocese. This new Episcopal ministry, which is such a humbling honour, will surely shape the second half of my priestly journey. This future, whether long or short, must be entrusted to God. The words of the Risen Christ to Peter become more apposite, “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18).