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Simon explains his vocation with the Goldilocks formula

The Diocese of East Anglia has 12 men studying for the priesthood at seminaries across Europe, the highest number for 30 years and amongst the largest contingents from all the English and Welsh dioceses. Sarah Sykes talked to one of them, Simon Davies from St Neots, about his vocation journey.

Simon's vocation formed when he was in his late teens. I met him when he spent a few months in the parish of St Laurence, Cambridge, last year, as he transitioned from living life as a Religious to becoming a trainee priest for the Diocese of East Anglia.

He was born in Cyprus, where his father was stationed in the RAF. Following his father's retirement in the 1990s, the family moved to St Neots, where Simon completed his education.

He went to church regularly up until the age of 10/11, when attendance became more sporadic, except during Holy Week and Advent. When he was about 16 he decided he would like to restart attending Mass weekly and although it felt odd going on his own, it was nevertheless OK.

After a year of doing this, he plucked up the courage to speak to Fr Pat Cleary (parish priest at St Neots at the time) and asked about the possibility of confirmation. He started serving at both Sunday and weekday Mass, and he was confirmed at 18 and was also involved with visiting the sick.

Simon continued with these things at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he went to study History and Politics, at both the student chaplaincy and St John's Cathedral.

On completing university in 2009, he went to Oscott seminary for three years, where he studied for the priesthood and gained a Theology degree awarded by Birmingham University. Trying to discern how he should move forward, he took a break from study and went to do pastoral work in Haverhill, working at St Felix's Primary School as a teaching assistant and also in the Chaplaincy at Highpoint Prison. While working he contemplated how he would like to live out his vocation and explored several religious communities before settling on the Norbertine community in Chelmsford.

Norbertines lead what is known as a mixed life, that is part contemplative and part active. Founded in the early 12th century in France, a Norbertine monastery is specifically for priests. The active pastoral life in the community of the priest is strengthened and supported by the contemplative life lived in the monastery. Chelmsford is the only Norbertine house in England, and the rule is that you cannot move from one house to another. It supports a mixture of clerical and lay brothers.

Simon was accepted into this house and while living the Norbertine life also spent some time studying in Oxford for 18 months living within the Oratorian community in order to continue his priestly studies. He took his vows in 2014, but when he reached the end of his time it was decided he would not take his final vows within this community.

In 2016, he felt his vocation was taking him elsewhere. He applied to Bishop Alan to return to the Diocese as a student and was accepted. He came to St Laurence for a few months to be formed pastorally as he transitioned from community life to recommencing his studies in September 2017 at Wonersh in Surrey.

His particular areas of interest include prison ministry and university chaplaincy, working with young people in a substantial way, working with travellers and parish life in general. Simon is looking forward to joining the clerical life of this Diocese. He likes the character and the people of the Diocese. It is quite small in terms of numbers of priests and this lends itself to a greater sense of fraternity among the priests than perhaps is the case in larger dioceses. In part, he believes, this is because of the way the bishops have moulded what is still a young Diocese.

Simon feels strongly that it is important for priests to be friends with one another, and to have good relationships with one another, for support and for having someone to talk to about priestly matters, in order to bring balance and normalisation. Several priests have influenced and been an example to him over the years including Fr Pat Cleary, Bishop Michael, Bishop Alan, Fr Laurie Locke, Fr Henry Whisenant, Fr Michael Collis, Fr Michael Teader, Fr Peter Leeming and Pope Benedict, whose words, sermons, letters and books are "like honey to me'.

Having known that he would like to be a priest from his late teens onwards, one of his "light bulb' moments was the election of Pope Benedict. As the Catholic Church was in transition from Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI, Catholicism held the attention of the world. He saw that it was an international thing that stretched across time and place, and went beyond his walls, parish and private prayer. It was something alive, and real, and true and something he wanted to be a part of.

Of St Laurence's, he says: "It is a Parish that I think Our Lord is very happy with. There is a lot of love here and it is infectious. It is a vibrant Parish underneath which is a foundation of prayer. People know why they come here; you get a real sense of prayer. You can see on people's faces that they love Our Lord and they are here for that. From my perspective that is very encouraging for my own prayer life. I do pray for people and parishioners individually; and this is something I want to do. When you see love you want to return it. It is a bit like a miniature response to what the Trinity is like. It is very good for me being here."

On Vocations to the Priesthood, he says: "Vocations are like house plants. House plants are not the same as hardy outdoor plants. If you water them too much they die, if you don't water them enough they die. They need sunlight. They need care and attention, but not too much. You've got to get it just right. It's the Goldilocks formula (ie which one is "just right') which nobody really knows but which is ultimately the work of God, the work of the Holy Spirit acting through people.

"I have noticed that there are [vocational] sparks in people and those sparks need to be nourished. In a world of noise and confusion and pop psychology and those sorts of things, those sparks aren't getting noticed any more in a way in which they were in the past and I think that's a sad loss.

"We are lucky to have a good number of seminarians in the Diocese now, which is a remarkable turnaround, thanks largely in part to Bishop Alan. He is very encouraging to people. More than just sending out leaflets and having events – important though these things are – he prays and gets other people to pray across the Diocese; and that is the most important thing. He is insistent on praying for vocations, on Eucharistic adoration (where possible) and is very good at encouraging people who have a "spark'; and encouraging them well. But what is most important is God working through prayer.

"If people want to give their life to something then it has got to be really good and they've got to understand what it is they are giving their life to by the example of others, by teaching and by being realistic of what that life is about," said Simon.

Building up a vocational base is done through prayer, encouragement and fraternity, and by being positive about the priesthood. People don't give their lives to things that are made out of jelly. People build their houses on stone. The Lord said that! Give people good foundations then the Lord will build a very big building."

If you are interested in exploring a possible vocation, please contact Fr Pat Cleary at:

Pictured above is seminarian Simon Davies.