We need unconventional priests

Dan McGinty recalls a man who proves the path to the priesthood isn’t always straightforward.

For 65 years, Fr Jim Dean wasn’t a priest. And then, just as his peers and colleagues were beginning their retirements, he was.

He had been, at various times, the only child of loving parents, a young man with ideals and ambitions, a social worker with great responsibility and, later, a deacon. It was during his ministry as a deacon that Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, in his wisdom, thought to prompt a vocation to the priesthood.

He asked Fr Jim would he consider it.

Fr Jim wasn’t sure, but he took a year to discern and to pray and to decide and at the end of that year he was ready to proceed. His concerns about the workload and other requirements for a man at his stage of life trying a vocation were not a problem for the late archbishop.

Fr Jim, a unique man, followed a unique course of study to the priesthood, completing his studies in England, the only participant on a course made just for him.

What foresight by Archbishop Tartaglia. He recognised in Fr Jim a man who had the character to add so much to the life of a parish in Glasgow, and the bravery to pursue it at a time when he might rightly have been turning his thoughts to the re- wards of his working life and the chance to slow down.

The parish which benefited was St Robert’s in Househillwood. At his funeral in a packed St Robert’s Archbishop William Nolan spoke about the three vocations Fr Jim had lived – as a layperson, a deacon and a priest, noting that really these vo- cations were the same one, serving God by serving others.

He also had the ability to invigorate others to serve, and his openness to others meant that others were open to him.

I, like many Catholic men, had never bothered to clean a church before, but Fr Jim put a call out for people to help get St Robert’s ready for the first lifting of restrictions and I went along to help.

Fr Jim had come alive at seeing parishioners back inside his church again, preparing for the time when even more could return for Mass.

An abiding memory of him will always be a sight I saw that day, of him standing at the altar. Perhaps emotion or excitement got the better of him, but he leant across the altar, with his arms stretched out almost as if he was hugging it, and said aloud to no-one in particular: “My altar! I want to be back at my altar!”

It was a private emotion made public, but it demonstrated how precious his vocation was to Fr Jim, and how clearly he saw that his vocation was not one to be lived out in front of a webcam in the upper room of the house at St Robert’s, where he had a chapel and had been streaming Mass on YouTube.

It was to be lived out among the people of St Robert’s, who he loved and who loved him.

Fr Jim was a believer, someone who shared the light of Faith with everyone he met, whether that was in local schools, hearing Confessions on the Mercy Bus in Glasgow city centre, supporting others in their vocations, praying for peace in George Square or leading people who he had simply met by chance into the Church, as his RCIA group this year at St Robert’s testifies.

Despite that belief I’m sure that there were many decades when Fr Jim would not have believed that his life would end as the dearly loved priest of a parish given life and leadership by him in his 71st year. It did.

It did because Fr Jim listened when he was called, had the bravery and confidence to follow that call and was given the support to allow his great gifts to enhance the lives of so many.

Thank God for men like Fr Jim. They are in parishes up and down the country and they are in Rome at the Scots College. Others won’t even know that is who they are yet, because if Fr Jim showed one thing – and in his life he showed many – it is that there is no standard vocation and that the call can come at any time.

He knew his priesthood was a gift. It was a gift that he shared with everyone that he met. I am glad that I knew him, and even more glad that he served me as a priest. Farewell, Fr Jim. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

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