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‘The future is bright: I’m convinced of that’

Blanche Girouard and John Griffiths - The Tablet - Sun, May 26th 2019

The priestly life

‘The future is bright: I’m convinced of that’

Canon John Griffiths - Photo: Blanche Girouard

What is the experience of being a priest today, serving in an ordinary parish, in a Church that is struggling to maintain its credibility? In a new six-part series, six men – some ordained more than 50 years ago, others not long out of the seminary – share their fears and concerns, their hopes and dreams

THE PRIEST: Canon John Griffiths
PARISH: Our Lady and St David, Cwmbran
AGE: 63

I left school when I was 16 and went to work in a factory. I thought now I was a working man, I didn’t have to go to Mass. But, somehow or other, the Lord gets his claws into you so, would you believe, I picked up a Bible and started reading. 

I was working with people who didn’t know God. Didn’t want to know God. I wanted to be a “fisher of men” but I didn’t know how, as a factory worker. Then I saw a man being ordained who’d been a bus conductor. That was the turning point for me. I spent two years at St Mary’s College in Aberystwyth, because I had no “O” levels, then six at All Hallows in Dublin. 

In my first parish, the church had crumbled because the priest hadn’t done any work on it for 16 years. But the congregation was amazing. You wouldn’t believe the money they gave to help. 

Then I was sent to a parish where one priest had committed suicide and two others had had a bad experience of priesthood. Gone off with men. Gone off with women. I went around all the churches with a couple of very charismatic people and we sprinkled them with holy water and said an awful lot of prayers. And that lifted whatever cloud there was. Then things began to change and became a great deal better. Because there had been no laughter or joy in the people when I arrived. 

I came to Cwmbran in 2012 after 16 wonderful years at St Helen’s, Caerphilly. My first year was sheer hell. I was celebrating 14 Masses a week: 10 in my own two churches, three for the nuns at Llantarnam Abbey and one at Usk, where they had no priest. Plus that year, I remember, I had 57 funerals and 40-odd baptisms. I was a burned-out case by the end of it. I didn’t even have time to spit.

The result was that I put on a tremendous amount of weight. Drank more than I should. And sleepwalked into type 2 diabetes. That really was a wake-up call. I was referred to the gym. Went to Weight Watchers. And was put on Metformin. I had to tell the Mother Superior, “I can’t do this any longer,” so they released me from the convent and, as luck would have it, a priest was appointed at Usk.

A day off? I’m the worst at that. The phone. The doorbell. It’s always going. Before last weekend [8 February], I hadn’t had a day off since Christmas. But I’ve always had a strong prayer life. That’s been a really great grace. I used to use an awful lot of words but now it’s very, very silent. I try to totally empty myself. I may just say, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner” or, if it’s a glorious day, I’ll say, “Abba Father” for an hour. Just repeat that. In the church or before the Blessed Sacrament. 

The other thing that’s good for me is the Fraternity of Priests. Four or five of us meet every eight or nine weeks to share our joys and sorrows. That’s a real source of consolation. Plus I go to the gym and have an exercise bicycle in my lounge. I had gone up to 21 stone. Now I’m down to 17!

The thing that has surprised me most, as a priest, has been the rejection of Jesus Christ. As a priest, you always want to share the Good News. But today people don’t want to know. Last September, I invited the Irenaeus community from Liverpool here to do a parish mission. I thought after advertising it well and creating a committee, parishioners would come. But they didn’t. 

Years ago, when people came to get their children baptised, or prepared for Holy Communion, the majority would stay in the faith. Not now. Now they just want Baptism to get the children into a Catholic school. And First Communion is like a Brownie badge. A Boy Scouts badge. And that’s hurtful. Really hurtful. It feels like a slap in the face.

I do have sympathy. Of course I do. Today’s parents are just taxi drivers for their children. What are they doing on a Sunday morning? Taking their children to rugby or to football or to swimming. They haven’t got time to come to church. Plus there are an awful lot of broken families. Where the children go and see their mother or father in Manchester or the Midlands at weekends. So you can’t very well expect them to come to church. And whereas my dad (who wasn’t Catholic) always encouraged us to go to church, an awful lot of non-believing fathers today would say to the mother, “Leave them alone. Let them make up their own minds.”

But when the mission came, and I didn’t see people come in, I thought, “Griffiths, you’ve failed. It’s not happening.” Then I felt deflated. I really felt deflated. But it was a wake-up call as well. 

When you look at Matthew 28, what did he say? “Go unto the world, into every nation, baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and know that I am with you always to the end of the world.” But he tells us this as well: “Go and make disciples.” 

The Church in England and Wales is brilliant at shepherding. Baptising people. But we’re no good at making disciples. We need to teach people. Feed them. Help them to encounter Jesus Christ. A lot of parents, love them, haven’t got any idea about the faith. They really haven’t got a notion of who Jesus is. Or a relationship with him. Or a prayer life. And we haven’t formed people to welcome them. If there’s a lady on the door, giving out prayer books, and she’s had a miserable experience in her life – well, instead of being joyful, she simply puts them off.

The solution for me now, I think, is to make missionary disciples. And the great thing is, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I can follow the Divine Renovation programme set up by Fr James Mallon. He knows exactly what we’re all going through. He turned things around in his own parish in Halifax.

I know I can’t do it by myself. I’m going to need a team around me. But I’ve got a great charismatic parish prayer group. They know that there’s a problem. They know it and they feel it. So they’ll be my partners in prayer and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I’m confident we’ll find the people. 

The bishop is talking to me about building a brand new church. I’d love to do that. I’d like a round church, with a steeple. The altar would be in the centre. And there’d be rooms where children would be safe for the children’s liturgy. A place where we could have a jolly. And somewhere to form people: teach them what the sacraments really mean and what they’re all about. 

At the moment there are steel shutters on the church doors – put in by my predecessors yonks ago. I’d like a bright environment where people can come in a non-threatening way. A place where people feel loved and cherished. Feel as though they know Jesus Christ, can call God “Abba, Father” and be filled with the Holy Spirit. It would be environmentally friendly, inside and out. And financed by social housing which we’d build on site. 

That’s my dream. And I know it’s going to be slow. Very, very slow. But the future is bright: I’m convinced of that.

As told to Blanche Girouard.

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