|Philip Mulryne during his time at|
Norwich FC - (source: SportsWorld Cards)
After beginning his soccer career with Manchester United, Philip Mulryne moved to Norwich City and subsequently played for Ipswich Town, Barnsley, Leyton Orient and the Polish side, Legia Warsaw. For many years, he also played midfield for Northern Ireland, along with fellow Norwich team-mate, Paul McVeigh. Both men were born in Belfast.
I have already mentioned before on this blog that I once lived in Norwich for many years. During that time, I was quite a keen Norwich City fan. Like so many others, I will never forget the night in April 2004 when I heard that the team - which included Mulryne and McVeigh - had been promoted to the Premier League. Norwich subsequently went on to win the Championship that year, too. In fact, I was amongst the crowd to greet the players when they appeared on City Hall's balcony to celebrate their achievements at the end of the 2003/04 season.
It was around the same time that I also made some drastic changes in my own life, and decided to concentrate on the potential calling to the priesthood that I had felt since my own baptism as a 16-year-old in 1992. Although I had always felt called to the religious life or the sacred ministry since the moment the baptismal waters touched my head, I had always tried to block out or avoid these rather frightening feelings. The feast of St John the Baptist, 2004, though, saw me resolve to attend daily Mass and seek some vocational guidance.
The next few years were the most grace-filled and joyful of my whole life, full of prayer and a sense of awe. It seemed as if I didn't have to try that hard to commit to my faith, as God was filling my life with unmerited grace. He even seemed to intervene to stop me smoking - I gave up a 60-a-day habit suddenly after Mass one day. Those amazing days remind me of these words from Scripture:
If the Lord does not build the house,Living next to St John's Cathedral, Norwich, was a great help - it meant that I could easily get to the 7.30am Mass every morning, before which I would pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer at home. The Cathedral also had a successful Young Adults' Group, which led a well-attended weekly hour of Adoration. It was as if everything was in place, just waiting for me to make the most of it. All I had to do was turn up and receive an abundance of God's love.
in vain do its builders labour;
if the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.
In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. (Ps 127:1-2)
Amongst those who used to attend the weekday Mass at St John's was Mulryne's team-mate, Paul McVeigh. Although I never like to mention people that I have seen at Mass or at prayer, anyone who happened to go to the 7.30am Mass in Norwich's Catholic Cathedral during Lent would have noticed this famous footballer - there were only ever about 15 of us in the congregation, and most of us did not look like premiership soccer players!
McVeigh obviously took his faith seriously, and his attendance at daily Mass was an inspiration to me and to many others, especially when we sometimes knew that he would be rushing off to play against Manchester United, Everton or Aston Villa straight afterwards. Of course, another regular at St John's was the celebrity cook and television presenter, Delia Smith, who has co-owned Norwich City FC for many years.
Paul McVeigh has written on his blog about a recent to visit to see his old team-mate, Phil Mulryne, at the Pontifical Irish College. From what he wrote, McVeigh seems genuinely pleased that his friend is now discerning a vocation to the sacred priesthood. The Catholic Herald also reports McVeigh's surprise at Mulryne's decision - in the past, Phil Mulryne has dated glamorous women, like the model Nicola Chapman.
On his blog, McVeigh commented on his friend's new life, writing: “To my amazement, and most likely to the rest of the footballing fraternity’s, Phil decided to train to become a Catholic priest. I was still in contact with him and knew that he had turned his life around and was doing a lot of charitable work and helping the homeless on a weekly basis. Still, it was a complete shock that he felt this was his calling." He added that his friend had not taken his decision lightly, and that Philip Mulryne looked "contented" when they both met.
Paul McVeigh's blog entry is very interesting, and I highly recommend that you read it yourselves - he even mentions how he visited the Vatican and ended up playing a 5-a-side football match with some seminarians! When I read McVeigh's account of his trip to Rome, I couldn't help wonder whether he had sometimes prayed for Mulryne during those years when he would attend Mass at St John's. I am sure they are keeping each other in prayer now.
Mulryne and his steps towards the priesthood has raised a lot of feelings for me - good ones, and some sad ones, too. My mind has been filled with memories of Norwich and the amazing time that led me to take the plunge and to enter a seminary in 2006. Needless to say, I have also been trying to figure out why I left so suddenly after entering - something that still haunts me to this day.
To have felt called to the priesthood for many years and then to have thrown it all away is probably my one greatest regrets in life. And I have subsequently spent far too much time wondering what motivated me to do this. Maybe I wasn't ready? Maybe I wanted to test the monastic vocation? Maybe God intervened and saved the Church from a potential disaster? Who knows. One thing I am sure of, though, is that I would have made an awful priest!
Today, I feel far too unworthy to even contemplate discerning a vocation to the priesthood, even if no hour goes by without me being more and more convinced that the one thing that would have fulfilled me and made me happy is the one thing I chucked away. It is an awful cross to carry, especially knowing that in deliberately choosing to reject God's gift, I may have gravely offended Him. (Despite the consoling words of others, the fact remains that when one friend spurs the gifts of another, it doesn't bode well for the friendship.)
The fact that I did not stick it out and carry on discerning a potential vocation to the priesthood really fills me with dread. Will I never now know fulfilment in this life? To what purpose is the earthy existence of a failed vocation? How much longer can I go one being haunted by a way of life that I am both afraid of and also feel drawn to at the same time? A house divided surely cannot stand. Something will have to give sooner or later.
Because of my own experiences of failure and regret, I always encourage seminarians to stick with it - unless they are totally sure that the priesthood is not for them. As for those who have left the priesthood, how can one live an 'ordinary' life after having once known the greatest contentment that any man may feel? Surely, they must miss offering the Sacrifice of the Mass, even if they now have the consolations of family life?
But that's enough moping! Let's all of us rejoice that someone who has known the glories of this world has been given the courage and the grace to cast out into the deep and enter a seminary. It cannot have been easy for Philip Mulryne, a man in his mid-30s, to leave all that he has known in order to discern a vocation to the priesthood. He deserves our prayers and support. Also, not only is this good news for him personally, as well as his diocese, but it is also something that the whole Church in Ireland can rejoice in - especially after the priesthood there has suffered such a bad press in recent times.