The Archdiocese of Liverpool welcomed a new priest in July with the ordination of 25-year-old Father Thomas Clarke.
When Father Thomas Clarke, the Archdiocese of Liverpool’s newest priest, stepped down from the altar at the end of his Mass of Ordination on Saturday 13 July, the final hymn which filled St Charles Borromeo Parish Church in Aigburth could not have been better chosen.
It was ‘Immaculate Mary’, the Lourdes hymn, and as Fr Thomas explains, it is a hymn which holds deep personal meaning. It was in Lourdes, after all, that he reached a critical point in understanding a calling that had been with him, he says, since he began serving Mass aged seven.
He was 18 and fresh from leaving St Edward’s College and ‘was praying the Rosary in the Grotto late one night when I was filled with this great sense of peace and then affirmation. I met up with Archbishop Kelly the next day and said, “I’d like to go off to seminary now”, and we spoke for about an hour and it was decided I’d go to Valladolid that September which I did.’
That was in 2012. This summer, after 12 months in Valladolid and six years at St Mary’s College, Oscott, Fr Thomas returned to Lourdes the week after his Ordination to fill the role of chaplain to the hotel-assisted pilgrims on the Liverpool Archdiocesan pilgrimage. ‘Everything has come full circle,’ he observes of this inaugural assignment, which will be followed by a first posting within the Diocese, to Holy Name, Fazakerley as assistant parish priest.
He will start there September under the wing of parish priest Father Kevin McLoughlin, and says: ‘I know I’ll have a very warm welcome and I know it’s a very busy parish as well, with a prison, a hospital and a couple of schools to get to know. At the moment, quite naturally, there’s a lot of attention on me because I’m the new priest but I’m looking forward to the anonymity, if you like, of being part of the presbyterate of the Archdiocese.’
Country’s youngest priest
Fr Thomas, at 25, is ‘probably the youngest priest in the country’ by his own estimate. And he speaks with conviction of a calling which, he observes, ‘has never really left me’ since his days as an altar boy at St Charles under the late Father George Russell who ‘all the way through my childhood and teenage years was an incredible witness to the priesthood’.
He continues: ‘The proximity to the Mass as an altar boy developed that love for the Mass and the priesthood and slowly I came to the realisation that not only did I want to be a priest but God wanted me to be priest as well. All through my teenage years at St Edward’s that never really left me. It built to a climax when I was 18 and going through my UCAS application.’ He applied for History and Italian courses but ‘knew deep down it wouldn’t come to anything as I wanted to go to seminary instead.’
There is a deep sense of gratitude to those who helped him during that period, including teachers at St Edward’s ‘who through their witness as Catholics really spoke to me’. He goes on: ‘St Edwards helped me to grow in my prayer life to the point that I could actually make that decision at the age of 18 and say I think that is what God wants me to do instead.’
There have been other guiding lights from this Diocese, including Canon Stephen Maloney and Father James Preston, both vocation directors here, and both Archbishop Emeritus Patrick Kelly and the current Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon. Additionally, he names Fr Grant Maddock, who played a prominent role at his Ordination Mass. ‘I was vested by Fr Grant. He has always been a very good friend to me and an inspiring priest and I could think of no one I’d prefer to vest me.’
Another prominent role at the Ordination Mass was filled by Fr Simon Baker, Master of Ceremonies, who ‘did an excellent job of keeping me calm throughout’. Fr Simon is a friend from Oscott, a place where Fr Thomas savoured ‘the fraternity among seminarians’. He elaborates: ‘We train as brothers and form each other as much as we form ourselves.’
Seminary had its challenges, or spiritual growing pains, as he calls them. ‘You have to really enter into a process of maturation and growth and to be the priest that Christ wants you to be and not a priest in your own image and likeness. It is about not being self-reverential and not relying on your own resources but trusting in the Lord and that comes from time spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.’
As for the experience of being the youngest seminarian, he says any sense of novelty soon passed. ‘I’d just turned 19 when I started at Oscott. I didn’t try to let it influence things too much – I recognised there were older men with a great deal more experience in the world of work but we were all embarking on the same process and we all had areas of necessary growth to embark on and we all helped each other with that. Age becomes quite insignificant really – you are just brothers who are training together.’
That long process ended where it had begun, at St Charles Borromeo, his home parish. Fr Thomas describes how the nerves felt before his Ordination Mass dissipated with the first hymn, ‘Praise to the Holiest’, when ‘a great sense of peace came over me’. And he felt grateful for the presence close by of his mother Mary and sister Rebecca and for the fact his grandfather Edward was able to be there for the Ordination rites, despite ill health.
He was appreciative too of the homily given by Archbishop Malcolm. ‘It was a very challenging homily which spoke to the challenges and the responsibilities of the priesthood. With it being July, I asked for a votive Mass of the Precious Blood of Christ and the Archbishop brought in the imagery of the Lord shedding his blood. We are called to do the same in our priesthood.’
As a priest, Fr Thomas is relishing the opportunity to dispense the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, yet acknowledges there will be obstacles ahead – or ‘times in my priesthood where I will let people down’. That said, the grace felt at his Ordination weekend held an inspirational force – and this included the experience of his first Mass at St Charles Borromeo on Sunday 14th, when Canon John Udris, his spiritual director at Oscott, gave another powerful homily. ‘He spoke from heart about his experience as a priest, and married all of that to the Ordination rites from day before,’ he explains.
‘I was probably more nervous then, because at the Ordination everything is happening to you but for the first Mass the responsibility is yours. But it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I was really moved by how many of my brother priests turned up and there were lots of young people who I’ve known from school or Lourdes and that really touched me to see a very youthful and energetic church.’ Now to take his own youth and energy and faith, and put them to good use in his new life as a priest.