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Faith is now Matthew's focus

The BBC documentary, Priest School, shone a light on the lives of seminarians in the Pontifical Scots College in Rome. The programme, which was universally well received, followed the young men who will form an important part of the future of the Scottish Church. It allowed them to express themselves on camera, show their dedication to the faith and perhaps even dispel some myths about the priesthood along the way. Missio Scotland decided to delve a little deeper with some of them to find out why they’re embarking upon this very special, personal mission.

WHEN the BBC programme Priest School aired in 2020, the feedback it received was not only generally positive, but most viewers remarked that it was useful in tackling stereotypes surrounding seminarians and the priesthood itself. As the American writer Nancy Kress said: “A stereotype may be negative or positive, but even positive stereotypes present two problems—they are cliches, and they present a human being as far simpler and uniform than any human being actually is.”

One such seminarian who epitomises this is Matthew O’Neill, from Motherwell Diocese, currently studying in Rome. Matthew, as you would expect, is extremely devoted to his Faith, but it’s not his only passion and his talents could have seen his life follow a somewhat different path.

“I’m a big film buff,” he explained. “I’m a big fan of odd and eclectic films, and independent and foreign films, with the GFT being a regular haunt of mine back home. Three of my favourite films though would be Planes Trains and Automobiles, At Eternity’s Gate and Signs.

“I also made a short film during lockdown that was in a few festivals and won a few awards. It is called Stray Dog, which I made with my brother and another local guy. It’s about a boy who has recently been made homeless on the streets of Glasgow and focuses on the talk that he has in a darkened alley with another older homeless man. There’s a twist at the end! It was something we had filmed prior to the pandemic and the post-production during lockdown was a Godsend. It’s been in a few festivals, won a few awards, and the main actor, Lewis Gribben, just won the Scottish Bafta for Best TV actor.”

Matthew’s love of film and TV has often led him to seek out movies or shows that showcase the Catholic Faith in some way shape or form and critique them on that basis, with two such titles being the Irish film Calvary and the BBC series Broken.

Calvary is a horrible film, with a lot of horrible situations, but in the midst of it all, there is a priest who has the heart of a priest, willing to suffer for his people,” Matthew said. “He is imperfect, a sinner who sometimes makes mistakes in judgement, but his trust in Christ and love for the people in his parish even when they hate and revile him made a big impression on me. It is a tough watch but worth it.

“BBC’s Broken starring Sean Bean is another excellent piece of work in the same vein—an imperfect priest, allowing himself to be drawn into the complicated lives of the people in his community and truly giving of himself as a priest with a heart united to Christ’s.”

Inspirational figures

What’s interesting from Matthew’s take on both priests is the fact that he focuses on their example in trying to live their lives for others. It was similar examples from within his own family that actually played an important part in his decision to discern his vocation to the priesthood. In one of his messages on the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly—a celebration he instituted in 2021—Pope Francis said: “From the elderly we received the gift of belonging to God’s holy people. The Church, as well as society, needs them, for they entrust to the present the past that is needed to build the future.” That gift is one which has been passed onto Matthew most notably from his own grandfather, but also other family members too.

“I come from a pretty traditional Catholic family,” he said. “We went—and still go—together every week to Mass on Sunday, and when we went on holiday together, the first thing we’d always do would be to find the nearest parish to get Mass sorted. We went on most Saturdays to Carfin Grotto, a place which was and is very special to me, my vocation and my spirituality. One of my earliest memories is praying the Hail Mary with my mum and great granny—it was my party piece aged two.

“I have to mention my granda too, because he played a big part in my vocation too before he died. He was a big inspiration for living the Catholic life in a real, practical way, with a focus on other people rather than himself and spreading the Gospel through both word and action, no matter the personal cost.

“He was a man who understood that to be a man is to live your life for others—to be self-sacrificial. He was always happy to drop whatever he was doing to come to others in need, give advice, help at his local parish, soup kitchen and many others places. He was a beloved head of chemistry in Holy Cross High School for many years where he influenced many people over the years by his good example, kindness and investment, and he made sure to ‘pay it forward’ in everything that he did. He gave himself, his time and everything he had freely. He one of my biggest influences.”

While the influence of family plays a crucial role in passing on and strengthening the faith, the importance of the example set by our parish priests cannot be underestimated and our own National Director, Fr Vincent Lockhart, is another person that Matthew has cited as being pivotal in his faith journey.

“I was also given my vision of priesthood from Missio Scotland’s own Fr Vincent Lockhart, whose Masses I often used to attend when he was parish priest at St Monica’s, Coatbridge,” he said. “His calm, peaceful and spiritual introspective nature, combined with his outgoing, good-humoured, friendly manner made a big impression on me at the time and stayed with me. He was the first person that came to mind when it came time to look for a spiritual director.”


So buoyed by a solid foundation in the Faith both from his family and at parish level, Matthew took up his vocation, and while he realises that he still has a lot to learn about God and his Faith, he draws strength from prayer—'a constant internal dialogue with God,’ he termed it—and the Eucharist and is in no doubt as to what is meant by a vocation.

“Vocation is God giving us the gift of meaning, the gift of being able to wake up every morning and know that despite everything else, you have a God-given purpose, a reason to go out into the world and create as He does, whether that be helping to nurture relationships between people and God, building communities, raising a family to live a life of holiness together, writing great books and music to glorify God, being a voice for the poor, lonely and forgotten, working with your hands as Christ and His earthly father did, or many, many other things,” Matthew explained. “God has a particular role in mind for everyone, and although it may take a long time to establish what that is, with prayer, patience, trust and good counsel, we can all experience the joy of being able to spend every day praising God by our actions, in the way He has chosen specially for you.”

Relationships and growth

Amidst the hustle and bustle of seminary life in Rome, with its early rises, intense study, history around every corner, encountering people from all over the world and copious amounts of pasta, Matthew feels he has grown both intellectually and spiritually, something he attributes to the going back to faith examples of the saints and scripture passages, but also the relationships he has formed while in the seminary. He has also come to learn what are the most important qualities and characteristics required of a seminarian.

“I’ve also always thought that my motto could be ‘Freely you have received, freely give,’ as it sums up so much—being able to give, and wanting to give, the Gospel, love, mercy, charity, life and so much else, because you have always first received them from God,” he said “This makes me want to both thank Him and be like Him. I also take a lot from my granda’s favourite passage, James 1:22: ‘But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves,’ as well as the eternally grounding: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ I have a particular devotion to Our Lady and also to St Joseph, who is a model for all fathers, including the spiritual. I’ve also always admired the simplicity and trust found in the faith of St Therese, as well as the humility and wisdom of Venerable Fulton Sheen.”

“As soon as I entered seminary, I realised that I was in the right place,” he added. “But even so, you shouldn’t be afraid to share anything with your formators, be it in the so-called ‘external forum’ of the rector and vice rector, or ‘internal forum’ of your spiritual director. They know you are not perfect, and don’t expect you to be—they really are there to help you, and developing a trusting relationship with them is key.

“My two spiritual directors, Fr Stuart Chalmers in Salamanca and Fr Rogi Thomas in Rome, have both been invaluable sources of spiritual guidance, wisdom and strength. Without all of their kindness, patience and honesty I doubt I would have been able to proceed. Having a good spiritual director that you can be open and honest with is crucial—I would recommend it to anybody, not just those discerning a vocation.

“A seminarian has to be able to be open and honest about everything that’s going on with them, both with their formators, and with their spiritual director. It’s only through knowing you’re not the finished article and that others have a lot to teach you, as well being able to swallow your pride in order to take on feedback and advice, that I think growth is really possible for a seminarian.

“Also, the ability to listen, to enjoy the company of others. You should also work hard at maintaining relationships, both inside and outside of the college. You can never have too many friends and I think it’s crucial to have good friendships with people of many different backgrounds—not just priests and seminarians! But you have to be comfortable being by yourself as well and a good sense of humour is must-have too.”

Pope Francis pops by

That sense of humour was evident when Matthew recounted a chance meeting he had with Pope Francis while in Rome. In the midst of moving college he was trying to carve out some time to go to Confession. What he didn’t expect though, was to run into the Holy Father, but that is exactly what happened!

“I accidentally bumped into the Pope once in Rome,” he said. “On the day we were moving college, I quickly wanted to go to Confession, so high-tailed it into Santa Maria Maggiore in the city centre. The main church seemed to be empty, with a big hubbub up the back, but I only wanted Confession and there was no priest to be found. Finally, one came over, I made my Confession and at the end he said something like: ‘If you go now, you can still see the Pope.’ I said: ‘Sorry?’ ‘The Pope, he is here,’ he replied. ‘He is leaving behind you.’ I turned round, and there was Pope Francis being wheeled out surrounded by the adoring faithful. I knew he would have to go via the disability ramp, so I quickly ran outside and stuck my hand through. Sure enough, a few seconds later, he came past, I said ‘Holy Father!’ and he shook my hand, then was quickly whisked away in a black car whilst Vatican security held back the other people who were trying to run after him. Standing in shock, I thought ‘Better get back to moving my stuff.” Così è la vita a Roma!”

Mission and reaching out

On a more serious note, Matthew touched on many aspects of the Faith that are important to him and tie in neatly with the mission of the Church such as compassion and reaching out, which he witnessed from an early age while volunteering with the Passionist Youth Team at St Mungo’s in Glasgow. This, no doubt coupled with having Fr Lockhart—who spent many years living and serving the Church in Cameroon—as a spiritual director, has given him a greater understanding of mission and a desire of perhaps one day, experiencing the Church throughout the world.

“I would really like to experience the Church outside of Europe, perhaps somewhere in Africa, Asia or South America,” Matthew said. “These are all areas where the Church is rapidly growing and it would be wonderful to experience the freshness and zeal of the people’s faith, lived out in a way that is both Catholic and yet their own, for myself.

“Mission is a gift and an honour that God gives us. It is His own personal invitation to us to take part in His Work, the building up of the Kingdom of God; to be the answer to the prayers of the tired and hungry; to leave behind our own designs and being able to do so because we know and trust that God’s designs are much more wonderful and fruitful than we could ever dream.

“Christ said it best: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation.’ By word and by deed, every single Catholic has been called to be a missionary. All of us should renew our zeal and commitment each morning by saying: ‘Today, God, please use me to build up your Kingdom on Earth.’ And one way we can do that is by supporting the work of Missio Scotland, because its work in bringing the Word of God to the places that are disadvantaged in one way or another is something that I feel is profoundly important. It’s a part of what the Church has been doing from the very beginning—taking Jesus out into the world to let Him transform the lives of people. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt amongst us when Christ was born, and today the Word becomes flesh for people in 157 countries thanks to the men and women who have fully embraced their vocations. Any help we can give to continue this great work is in itself God’s work.”

The Shroud of Turin

At the outset of this feature, we spoke of not stereotyping seminarians, but one of Matthew’s other passions, which we’ll end with, may contradict this as it is something that appeals to the Catholic community almost in its entirety—and indeed those outwith it too— namely the Shroud of Turin, which has been venerated for centuries as the actual burial shroud used to wrap the body of Jesus after His crucifixion, and upon which Jesus's bodily image is miraculously imprinted.

“I have a particular interest in sindonology—the study of the Shroud of Turin,” he explained. “I’m a member of the British Society for the Turin Shroud, as well as an active member of a couple of online communities that discusses the latest academic, scientific and artistic developments in regards to shroud studies. I’ve been privileged to know some of the leading world experts in the field and I’ve been building up my own file of papers, books, documentaries, reconstructions, related medical journals and so on in relation to it. I’ve also used some of the latest AI technology to make my own recreations of the Man of the Shroud. 

“For me, it helps to better contemplate and think about Christ’s Passion, as well as just being really interesting.”

Interacting with our dedicated and faithful seminarians—the future of our Church—allows us to shine a light on them a little. Hopefully, Matthew’s journey is no longer shrouded in mystery!

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