Opens the door to the Church of the Holy Ghost & St Stephen's, Ashchurch Grove.

Interviewed by Jo Reynolds

How long have you lived here?

Since September 2015.

Why here?

Not my decision. We're sent by our boss, Cardinal Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. We take a vow of obedience and that's the deal. He has the oversight. It's exciting, challenging and I've been lucky. There are fantastic people here.

I took a 95% pay cut to work for God.

Where were you before?

I'm originally from Lincolnshire. Before I had a church and university chaplaincy in Hatfield, very different demographics from here, where the original parish was Irish with a number of West Indians. Now there are also lots of Europeans, English, Spanish, Italian, French – bankers, lawyers, media people... A typical Sunday will be 700 people but not the same 700.

Why did you choose the Church?

The Church chose me. I was always drawn to some form of public service. I went to law school and worked as a City lawyer. I considered politics and was shortlisted to run in Chester, but that didn't happen. All the while, I was going to church. I come from a churchgoing family, not Catholics. Study helped me appreciate that my ‘problems’ with Catholicism were misunderstandings on my part. I converted 20 years ago and the call to priesthood was very much connected to that.

Where did you train?

Rome. Again, not my decision. I spent four years with thousands of other students, from 110 different nationalities. I was taught by Jesuits in Italian – you pick it up. The exams are spoken, which helps you later. If a parishioner asks you a question about evil, they want an answer on the spot, not an essay later.

Was the shift from City lawyer to priest massive?

Not entirely. I still earn my living by my pen and my tongue. And both are about listening to what people are actually saying. I took a 95% pay cut. The Catholic Church is not wealthy. The Crown took everything here during the Reformation. And in Italy and France the State took it later. We depend entirely on what people put in the plate.

What about your retirement?

We have retirement homes and sometimes parishioners leave property. I trust the Church will look after me. I don't stay awake worrying about it.

Catholic priests must forgo marriage. Was that difficult?

Not everyone is called to marriage. Christ was celibate. It's not a choice against but a choice for a certain form of loving. It means we are free to be sent anywhere without having to worry about a wife and family commitments. I wear this uniform so people know I'm available. Twice complete strangers have come up and said they were thinking of killing themselves. I don’t know, but I hope my being available helped.

Did anyone try to dissuade you from your calling?

My family. They wanted me to be sure – as does the Church. They invest a lot in you and your training so the 'discernment' process takes over a year. There's psychological testing and interviews – to make sure you can serve long-term – which is right and necessary.

Have you ever met the Pope?

I've seen Pope Francis a couple of times. When training in Rome I met Pope John Paul II twice. You knew you were in the presence of a great man. You listened and he spoke at you. I met Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. He was humorous, and you had a real conversation.

When people ask you why God allows evil, what's your answer?

We don't do anyone any favours if we try to sum up evil in a sentence, but ultimately evil is the necessary consequence of free will. So much suffering in the world is caused by people’s wrong choices. Ultimately it's about love, which sounds strange, but God made us in order to love. To love you must be free; the flip side is that people are free to hate, free to do the wrong thing. God permits evil, but He will never let evil have the last word.

Has your faith ever been tested?

Difficult things happen all the time. I've preached at friends' funerals, but faith gives us the tools to cope.

Do you ever get nervous standing in front of so many people?

At the beginning, very much so, but you soon get used to standing in front of a crowd, with Mass every day, 700 on a Sunday, 300 at a difficult funeral.

How do you avoid being upset at funerals?

By having empathy, by having something to offer: hope for the future. Funerals are always painful for people but it's easier when you have faith.

Being always on show, do you feel obliged to be virtuous all the time?

It's a desire rather than an obligation. It's not always easy because priests operate in the same world as everyone else, but everyone is obliged to control themselves otherwise society breaks down.

Some think churchmen work one day a week. Aside from Sundays, what's your typical day?

I pray for an hour in church from eight, then there's Mass every morning at 9.30am. Then it's pastoral duties. Today I visited the Good Shepherd School, and sick parishioners at home and in hospital. Then some administration: planning baptisms, marriages and funerals. Plus meetings about church property. And planning events. Magdalen College Choir will sing to raise funds for Syria here on 12 April. A Finance Committee meeting last night went on till 9.30pm. I'm much busier as a priest than as a lawyer, but it doesn't feel like work. It's more like being a parent. I look forward to getting up in the morning.

Recent surveys suggest that over half the nation has no faith. How can you reverse this, particularly with the young?

We have lots of young families, young people getting confirmed. We tell them no subject is off limits: the existence of God, evil, sexuality, and contemporary issues like human trafficking and scientific discoveries. There's no contradiction between God and science. The scientist who proposed the Big Bang theory, George Lemaître, was a priest.

Are you under pressure to recruit?

We submit statistics each year about attendance, the number of baptisms and marriages, but I'm not sure what happens with them. There's not the control you think.

Does the job ever make you laugh?

When children call out: 'Look, there's Jesus!' And a profoundly deaf parishioner shouted out in a Geordie accent in the middle of Midnight Mass: 'Isn't Father Mark wonderful?'

Is your life in any way like Father Ted's?

The setup with a live-in housekeeper ceased 40 years ago. I live alone and fend for myself. There's no Father Jack or Father Dougal here.

Working 6 days a week and 14-hour days, how do you relax?

Friends, meals, travel, writing, reading. I have Thursdays off but need to be back for evening Mass. We get 4 weeks holiday a year. Training in Rome I made a lot of international friends and now am lucky enough to holiday all over the world.

Do you think you're lucky to have faith?

Yes, I really don't know how people function without it.

Thank you, Father Mark. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Interviewed Feb 2017

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