Bishop Mark Davies tells Luke Coppen that Catholics in Britain face a time of great testing
What is Bishop Mark Davies really like? That’s a question I’ve pondered, on and off, ever since he was appointed Bishop of Shrewsbury in October 2010, shortly after the papal visit. Going solely by the headlines he often generates, I expected him to be fiery. But those who had met him described him as a gentle and quiet, yet decisive figure.
So it was intriguing to meet him for the first time when he visited our offices in October. During the interview, which took place in our atmospheric meeting room, he struck me as someone who takes life and the responsibilities of office with a deadly seriousness, but nevertheless exudes warmth and kindness. When he described what he sees as the coming persecution of the Church I felt slightly shaken because he seemed to picture it so vividly and be prepared to face the consequences.
– Luke Coppen
I want to ask first of all about your calling to the priesthood. At what age did you first became aware of it?
My vocation began in a surprising way, as a 12-year-old serving eight o’clock Mass on a December morning. My parish priest asked me to wait a moment after Mass and said: “I want you to think about becoming a priest.” That was the first moment in my life that the thought of myself being a priest had ever entered my mind. It was something which until then had been quite unimaginable. So that was the beginning and it was someone else who somehow recognised in me, as a 12-year-old, the prospect of a vocation to the priesthood, even though that was something I didn’t recognise myself immediately at that age, it was in the end to be my vocation.
What were your thoughts of what you would be as an adult at that time?
I had no clear thoughts really, apart from the sort of childish things that you think about. I had always had a great interest in things military – soldiers and that kind of thing – but there was no clear prospect for me at the age of 12 and so suddenly the breaking through, if you like, of this call, which came through my parish priest, to think of the priesthood – that took on huge importance.
What did you think the priest saw in you at that age?
I am not really sure. Maybe it was in my faithfulness or perhaps prayerfulness, as a server, something which he had discerned. He asked me for a very quick answer as well. He told me he would like me to give him an answer the next morning. And perhaps this was good psychology. It certainly focused my mind and naturally my answer was I didn’t know at that stage in my life. But it made me focus and God finds many ways of breaking through to us in our lives. But you do wonder if my parish priest hadn’t spoken to me that morning if I would have found my way to my vocation quite as easily.
Was he disappointed when you said you didn’t know?
No. He thought that was good enough and said he thought I should see the bishop, that that was the beginning for me.
Who was the bishop at that time?
Thomas Holland, Bishop of Salford. He was the bishop who would eventually ordain me and is the bishop whose ring I now wear and whose pectoral cross I wear as well.
Did you have any thoughts a bit later on about perhaps having a vocation to married life?
I am very conscious of a new generation of priests for whom a very immediate and personal decision had to be made. Starting out at the age of 12, as I did, I always saw that giving myself in the priesthood required giving a whole life through celibacy and yet I’d say – it was I think one of Blessed John Paul II’s reflections – that this sense of vocation and self-gift in priesthood brought me close to my contemporaries who were entering into marriage, in the dedication they made to marriage and the family.
Do you mean that they would ask you for advice?
I saw a spiritual closeness in terms of how celibacy supports the commitment, the life-long commitment and fidelity of marriage. I saw that increasingly as I was growing older and the importance of both of those vocations but I never saw myself called to marriage at any point and there was no crisis or dramatic decision required to continue my course for the priesthood.
Did you enter junior seminary, then?
I was accepted as a Church student at the age of 12 and then I continued in my ordinary course of education until I was 18.
When did you tell your parents about wanting to become a priest?
That was almost immediately and they were very supportive, but not directive of me. I think that’s really the right way to support someone in their vocation.
Were all your family Catholics?
My family were Catholics and I realise how blessed and privileged I was in my life to be brought up with the sheer normality of Church practice – that’s a living Catholic faith in my home life, of daily prayer, Sunday Mass, regular Confession. I think when I was a small child my mother, when I was out with her, would invariably call into church wherever we were to visit the hidden Jesus present in the tabernacles of those churches. Those visits to the Blessed Sacrament from my youngest years are a great memory and I have often said to parents, to people getting married, the importance of what they pass on to their children simply by the normal example of a Catholic family, its coherence and fidelity. That is a precious gift which we give to a new generation. I almost took that for granted when I was young.
Did you ever have a time when you stopped going to church?
There was no time in my own life when I stopped going to church. It was a life which was continuous from my early years because I was on the road to the priesthood and I was conscious of the greatness of this calling and what I had to try to rise to in my own life. So there was a deepening which went on through my life.
What are your family origins?
My family was an English family. There was Irish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family and my father’s family had come from Wales and their background, this is going back a generation or two, was in Welsh Nonconformity or the Church of Wales.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
I have only one brother, an elder brother, five years older than myself and he lives in the south of England.
Is he in secular work?
He is, yes. Not far from here [the City of London]. His life has been in insurance.
You were made a bishop at 50, which is a relatively young age, at least in this country. Did you feel ready for the appointment?
Well, I am often reminded of my relative youthfulness – the children, when I visit them in the primary schools, estimate my age as between 70 and 80. Well, it is slightly awesome that someone like St Charles Borromeo was clearly ready at the age of 25 and Karol Wojtyła – the late Blessed John Paul II – was ready at the age of 38. Mark Davies certainly wasn’t ready by the age of 50 and I was happy as a parish priest. I had roles throughout my priestly life in the diocese but always saw myself primarily as a parish priest. Out of the blue came this immense calling, an immense responsibility that you are suddenly called to. It is a moment, I think, for every candidate, where you are faced with your limitations and inadequacies and you just hoped that there was another candidate who was holier and more able than yourself who could have taken up this task. But you are very quickly, as I was in my journey back from London to the north of England the day I was called, thrown on to that dependence of prayer. I think I prayed the rosary almost continually in the car all the way back on that day. So that’s how I began, clearly seeing not my own readiness but trusting that it was the Lord who was calling me.
Did you feel sad to be leaving parish life?
A great sense of loss. That had been very much the heart of my life as a priest and I still feel the loss of that, of being a parish priest, but you discover a great joy, too, in the wider service that the bishop gives. Well, the happiest moment, of course, is to celebrate Mass each day, but the happiest time is to be out in the parishes of the diocese, particularly on a Sunday and being close to people in their parishes.
As a bishop, do you feel more removed from the people than as a parish priest?
You don’t have that immediate relationship with people, accompanying them in their lives. The people look to the bishop in a different role to the parish priest. I see my role very much to encourage the faithful through my teaching and prayer and the little that I can do. A parish priest is always there. The bishop comes and goes.
But what you are immediately struck by, and I was in my early weeks going around the parishes, is how people do look to the bishop and there is a desire on the part of people that you can confirm and encourage them in their faith. It is a different task that the bishop is called upon to fulfil.
You said in an article that you wrote for us on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II that when you met Pope Benedict on your ad limina visit that he kept on repeating the word “courage” and saying this is a thing that you have to have in your role.
He did. It was very striking because we had been looking at the issues of the diocese, which are common to so many dioceses across the West, and to encourage me, because I hadn’t even been ordained as a bishop at that point, he stretched out his hand several times, and it was very striking, he was using the word in English – “courage” – repeatedly before all the very evident challenges that we are facing.
Do you feel that you are a naturally courageous person?
I wouldn’t see myself as being naturally courageous, and perhaps that was what the Pope saw! But he was speaking very clearly of a supernatural courage, which he had spoken of elsewhere, particularly required by bishops, that they need that supernatural courage to carry out their mission. I think what has helped me most of all in that is a sense of eternity and of my own mortality – to know that I have been given this task, that this may be my last day and that while sometimes it is easier to take the route of least resistance, to choose the easy way, a quieter life, for a bishop it is important to realise your responsibility and that tomorrow I may not have that opportunity that has been given to me today to make a decision to be able to teach and give witness while we are still here in this world.
What’s a typical day like for you as bishop?
A typical day begins in my house with prayer. I have a private chapel. I live close to the Blessed Sacrament. It is a relatively small house, not a big house. I offer Mass, if I am not celebrating Mass elsewhere that day, and then I set out on the road. Now, my diocese is very far-flung. I am the best part of two hours from my cathedral, three quarters of an hour from my curial offices, so much of my day is spent travelling, a large element of my day. I try to get fresh air and exercise in the midst of the day. I carry my office and my books with me. So it is getting used to a very different life than that of a parish priest. It is very much an apostolic life resembling that of the Apostles: we move from place to place.
Do you have to work late into the night?
Yes. I would rarely finish early in the evening and evening events will mean that sometimes I am not back until after 10 o’clock in the evening at my house.
How are you sustained in that? It sounds like a draining routine.
The essential is prayer and giving that generous time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I seek to spend an hour each day as foundational to my whole day. The most important meeting is before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer and to be able to bring everything to Him, so that I can have some effectiveness in what I seek to do.
How do you resist the temptation to skip it because you have so many other things that are immediately pressing on you when you wake up each day?
I think it is a pattern which you enter into in your life as a priest. I think that what probably helps me never to overlook my time of prayer is my episcopal motto, which every bishop takes. Mine is “Nothing Without Christ” and that expresses so much, the dependence I feel. I actually delight in time of prayer. Prayer is never entirely easy for us but it is a very wonderful time and I love to spend that time in the parishes as well. It’s often that people will comment not on my preaching or personality but that I try to pray with them in the churches wherever I am and to spend that time quietly, silently in prayer with the faithful.
Could you see, say, a mother of four lively young children praying the same way that you do?
You have to pray in the place where you are in life. I don’t think you could replicate the pattern of a bishop’s prayer in the life of a young mother with four children. But a young mother will find a way of praying and bringing to the Lord, knowing that she needs that grace, that strength, to live her vocation and to also be able to bring, as I mentioned in my own life, her little ones with her into that prayer, in that turning towards Jesus, and knowing that He is with us.
Just returning to what Pope Benedict was saying to you about courage, sometimes Catholics worry about the future of the Church in this country and the scenario that bishops could end up going to jail at some time in the future for defending Catholic beliefs. Do you think that that is at all likely?
It is always difficult to foresee the future. As a young person, I used to pray for those Christians suffering under totalitarian regimes. It would have been quite unthinkable to believe that in Britain, during the gentle reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Christians would be brought before the courts for giving witness to their faith. I remember the words of Blessed John Henry Newman when he foresaw a time coming, a time of infidelity which, he said, would leave such courageous hearts as St Athanasius and St Gregory aghast and dizzy. But – and I think this is something which we must never, never forget – he also said that, though this trial for the Church would be different from all those preceding it, it would be overcome. I think that that is something that we must clearly see: that if we are called upon in our generation, our time, to give such witness, even being brought before courts, even facing the prospect of imprisonment, as you have mentioned, that this is our opportunity to give witness, as the Gospel reminds us, not just for our contemporaries but for generations who will follow us.
Is your sense that this time that John Henry Newman spoke about is imminent?
I think it is the dramatic moment that we are living through now. Now, of course Blessed John XXIII reminded the fathers of the Second Vatican Council of this: every stage of the Church’s journey, of our history, has been a dramatic moment. But Blessed John Paul II said as we came into this new millennium that he saw a new spiritual crisis taking shape which would either lead towards a new barbarism or to a new springtime of hope, following what he called the “century of tears”, the 20th century. I think that Cardinal Pell was recently speaking about this at the synod: the drama of our time which is caught between hope and fear, the supernatural struggle that we are engaged in. I think that we have to be attentive to the drama of our own time.
Could I talk about your own view of the general state of the Church in England and Wales? Statistically we can see a decline in baptisms, Catholic marriages and so on. Yet there are some quite promising signs. For example, the great outpouring of faith when the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux came here and also the relics of St John Vianney as well, which you brought to this country, the successful papal visit and a rise of vocations in some dioceses. So what is your general feeling? Is it that we in decline or are we seeing a revival?
I think, that if it’s a fair answer to the question, that we see both realities in the drama of the moment that we are living through, a little like the spring time amidst a wintry landscape. There are statistics of decline which are self-evident for the Church. But already we see all around us the promise and the hope that we can have. That was particularly manifested, as you’ve mentioned, and seen visibly during the papal visit, the visit of the Holy Father, and the journey of St Thérèse’s relics. Suddenly what is hidden is manifest. So I believe it is a moment of courage for the Church, to have the courage to be faithful at this moment and to realise that our faithfulness has a bearing not only for the immediate moment but also has a bearing for the generations who follow us and for what is to come.
What would you say was made manifest when the Pope came here and when St Thérèse’s relics came?
We saw in those days, amidst what might have appeared a wintry scene in terms of the criticism, the opposition that was manifest during both of those visits, we saw the faithfulness of so many Catholics, and particularly noticeably young Catholics. We saw during the pilgrimage of the relics, a large number – huge numbers – seeking Confession, a huge thirst for prayer, for catechesis. We witnessed during the visit of Pope Benedict a willingness, no matter how difficult it was, to stand with the Pope and give public witness on the streets of our cities on the part of so many Catholics and so many others who wanted to stand with us.
It did seem that there were many non-Catholics drawn to all these events. Do you think that the Church has begun to reach out to the many people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious and that the visit of the relics and the Pope gave people the opportunity to encounter the Church anew?
Yes, I think those are the opportunities, the moments of grace, that are offered. We see that for young people across the world in World Youth Day and all that offers. In our own country those moments we were discussing of Pope Benedict’s visit, the relics of St Thérèse, were those moments which offered people an opportunity to see the Church and to see the Church manifested through the saints and the gentle witness of Pope Benedict and his leadership, which I think touched the hearts of many of the British people.
How does the Church encourage people to go from attending a big event like that to entering the daily and weekly life of the Church in parishes?
I think we have to look at the same climate of prayer which we encountered particularly strikingly here in London at Hyde Park. We think of the Adoration with the Holy Father, the atmosphere of prayer with the relics of St Thérèse and St John Vianney – very striking atmospheres, that can be offered and can be truly manifest in our own parishes and communities. I think people were drawn to that climate of prayer. They also, I believe, were drawn to the witness that was being given, and I think that we often underestimate the witness which is being manifested in our parishes by their very presence. We think, here in the City of London, of the people who are coming and going from the City churches and we also can underestimate how people notice and take note of Catholics in ordinary life as well, the encouragement which I believe we give and sometimes the discouragement of bad example, too, which can be manifested in our lives.
I think you are alluding to the clerical abuse scandal. Do you think that’s made it very hard, if not impossible, for the new evangelisation to succeed in Britain?
I think undoubtedly that the well-documented cases of abuse amongst clergy and consecrated men and women presents a great scandal, a stumbling block, a distortion of the face of the Church. Now, people may tell us that this is a statistically small number among a very widespread problem, but to the Catholic no matter if there was one incidence we would share a horror of these crimes, of these breaches of trust, which would not just be the same but, I believe, greater than that of society around us.
I don’t think this shows the impossibility of the new evangelisation but I believe shows us as Catholics the need of the new evangelisation which presents the true face of the Church – the face of Christ – for our society today, which those scandals have been a distortion of.
In the new evangelisation the Holy Father speaks of a new ardour. Ardour is something more than just enthusiasm but involves a love for the Church, a love, above all, for Christ, who is with His Church and for us to manifest and to seek to present this to the world. The Holy Father in his homily at the close of the synod of bishops said it was the saints who make the Gospel intelligible for the people of our time. So we think of the importance of the saints of all times, the saints of our own times, those little saints – if we can ever call saints little – who are living that life and example for us so that importance of the new evangelisation becomes even more evident following a time of scandal.
I have been very struck recently, speaking to non-Catholics. So many of them bring up the abuse crisis and it is obvious that they expect Catholics, and particularly priests, to be holy people. So there is an expectation there that Catholics can offer this witness to holiness and an expectation of what Catholics should really be like.
This is surely what society around us is looking for in the witness of the Church. It has a right to look for that witness.
We know that we are sinners and that we all fail in our Christian lives repeatedly, hence the importance of the Sacrament of Mercy, of Confession, but they expect to see that struggle in our lives, to see us seeking those goals, the goal of holiness
above all, which Christ has called us to.
Could I ask you about the visit of the relic of the Curé of Ars which you brought to your diocese earlier this year? Why do you feel such a strong attachment to the saint?
Well, I was a parish priest for the greatest part of my priestly life. His was the life of a priest rooted in a parish. I believe he is not only a saint for parish priests but that he is a saint for the new evangelisation. Against all the odds of his own time – which we must never forget was a time of great upheaval during and following the French Revolution – he gave to me as a priest, as a priest working in a parish, an example, an encouragement of how we can seek the new evangelisation within the life of our parishes today. His strategy begins with prayer. When he was asked how this was brought about in Ars he would point to the place were he knelt before the altar. He is a powerful reminder of this priority of prayer.
He also shows us through those gifts which are there within reach of all of us in our parishes and communities, that through the sacraments, most of all the Holy Eucharist with the Sacrament of Confession, through simple catechesis and preaching, we have the means to call people to the holiness which was found in Ars. That’s something which has to be done again in every generation.
Would you say he is your favourite saint?
I think he has been my favourite saint since I discovered him. I am struck very much by his simplicity. He always speaks of his “poor self”, but he realised the greatness of what he had been called to and he reminded all the faithful – and the estimates go up to a quarter of the population of France that he encountered in the confessional – of the greatness of their
Could I ask, finally, will you be spending Christmas on the move?
Yes. It is an eventful day. One of the things I always took a measure of the great moments in the Church’s year – in fact, the whole of parish life – was from Confessions. One of the things I will do, to encourage people to come to Confession, is to spend the hours I can dedicate in the cathedral to Confessions on Christmas Eve. That’s a very important thing but also something which I love, being able to exercise that ministry. I will be celebrating Midnight Mass. I will be spending time in the prison celebrating Mass with the prisoners, and then it’s the long drive to the north to be with my father, who is 88, who comes to my house, where Christmas dinner will be eventually prepared.
So you will be personally sitting in a confessional on Christmas Eve in your cathedral for hours?
Yes, I am very happy to do this and think the hours designated are two to three hours and that’s prior to the vigil Mass and then prior to the Mass at midnight.
And you will have Christmas dinner at about eight o’clock in the evening?
A little earlier for my father but certainly it’s very late afternoon by the time those journeys are completed.