The interesting thing about my vocation story is that I wasn’t raised Catholic; instead, I was born into a Church of Ireland family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I remember the first time I set foot in a Catholic church. I was a teenager visiting with one of my friends. There must have been a Mass just before our arrival, as I could still smell the lingering incense. I was thoroughly impressed by the stained-glass windows and the religious art.
However, what impressed me the most was the sight of people sitting in front of the tabernacle in silent prayer. I instinctively knew that something significant was happening. Later, at university, I began attending Catholic Mass with some friends, and it felt like coming home. So I decided I wanted to become a Catholic. I shared this with the priest at my local church, who asked if I was getting married. He couldn’t fathom why else I would want to change my religion, as it’s not a common occurrence in Northern Ireland. I also faced opposition from some family and friends and felt discouraged. Much like the biblical seeds that landed on rocky ground, my faith didn’t take root.
My journey to Catholicism truly began after I finished my studies and moved to England. I worked as an occupational therapist, specialising in hand and upper limb rehabilitation in London. Later, I moved to Norwich to pursue my PhD in Medicine and Health Sciences. In my first year there, I was received into the Catholic Church. At the University of East Anglia, I was actively involved in the chaplaincy, and Fr Andrew Eburne encouraged me to attend a national discernment festival at St Mary’s Seminary. So, I went along with some of the Sisters from the congregation of the Daughters of Divine Charity and some other students.
One of the nuns, Sister Linda, was quite mischievous. She introduced me to every priest she knew, exclaiming: “This is Mark; he’s going to join the seminary!” She would then walk off, leaving me to explain to the bemused priest that I hadn’t considered the priesthood. However, something shifted during those few days. After a powerful talk on the priesthood and a sleepless night, I found myself in the chapel in the early hours, experiencing a moment of clarity during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
I felt the Lord calling me to be one of His priests. It seemed as though everything in my life had been leading up to that point, preparing me for the priesthood. The Lord revealed to me that while I thought I had reached the top of the mountain, I was actually only on a hill, and my true journey was just beginning. He had more in store for me than I could ever have imagined. Instead of being a healer of the body, He intended me to be a healer of souls. It was a deeply moving occasion, marked by laughter and tears.
Throughout the remainder of my doctorate, I pondered that life-altering night and decided to formally discern my vocation. Thus, upon finishing my PhD, I commenced my seminary studies at Allen Hall in London.
Seminary life had its ups and downs, but ultimately, it helped me grow as a person and equipped me with the tools to share the Good News. It also blessed me with lifelong friendships. A highlight of my time in the seminary was serving the Parish of St Paul the Apostle in Wood Green, London, over the past year, as a deacon.
There, I was able to exercise my ministry – preaching homilies, baptising babies, visiting the sick, and working as a chaplain for the confirmation group. Having completed my academic studies this year, I am eager to begin my priestly ministry. I am delighted that Bishop Peter Collins has agreed to ordain me.
I am looking forward to embarking on my priestly ministry. My vocation was born and nurtured here, and I believe this is where the Lord has called me to be. Therefore, I eagerly anticipate serving the people of East Anglia as one of your priests.
Fr Mark has now been appointed as Assistant Priest in St Edmund’s, Bury St Edmunds from September.
Pictured top is Fr Mark Ashwood being ordained by Bishop Peter Collins.