“God always knocks at the door of hearts. He likes to do this. It comes from His heart. But, do you know what He likes best? To knock on the doors of families and find families that are united, to find families that love each other, to find the families that bring up their children and educate them and help them to keep going forward and that create a society of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.” Pope Francis
A STRONG family unit is something that many of us are lucky enough to have experienced in our lives and with that generally comes a solid faith foundation too. While the Holy Father thoughts on the importance of family most certainly ring true, those among us who are really fortunate are able to witness that within the wider family of faith.
One such man, who has been able to bear witness to the goodness, truth and beauty within the faith family is Missio Scotland’s National Director, Fr Vincent Lockhart, who is now in his second term in the role. From his early days growing up in Lanarkshire and Angus, to working as an apprentice chartered accountant in Glasgow, to discerning his vocation and spending time on mission in Cameroon, Fr Vincent has experienced the power that faith and family can wield in one’s life.
“My parents were great people,” he said. “My father was very wise, a very insightful person. He had tremendous faith and was a good man. He had a great sense of social justice, which was a big thing in our family. My mother’s father was an MP, a Labour Party MP who went into parliament just after the Second World War. So, there was a great sense that faith wasn’t just about saying your prayers, it was about how you influenced society, how you lived out your life in a community.
“I have an older brother, an older sister, a twin sister and a little sister. We were very close and a family that was full of a lot of faith.”
Indeed, Fr Vincent’s own father was one of the primary influences in his decision to take up his vocation. He set up a youth conference of the SVDP in his parish of Our Lady and St Anne’s in Hamilton, the first time that had been done anywhere in Scotland. His father’s emphasis on getting young people involved with their Faith, not only encouraged Fr Vincent to get more involved with parish life and, as he says, put his ‘faith into action,’ but also to support the youth of the Church himself wherever he has served. It also re-emphasised to him just how crucial a role lay people can play in the life of the Church.
“Often the people I think who influenced me most in my life of faith were lay people,” he said. “My grandparents were very devout people in the religious sense, but particularly my grandfather who was a real character, the one who was an MP. He felt that you had to live your life with intelligence, the idea that faith is not something confined to the four walls of a church.
“When I was young, still at school, I got involved in a group called the Focolare, which is essentially a lay movement within the Catholic Church, albeit there are Anglicans, other Christian denominations and those of other faiths involved. They have a spirituality that I think was probably the biggest influence on my faith life, the idea that you lived your life with others, you lived your faith with others.”
Path to priesthood While working as an apprentice chartered accountant, something Fr Vincent still remembers as a significant experience not only ignited in him a desire to connect with people on an everyday basis, but also provided an important stepping stone on his path to the priesthood. While showing a tenement block in the west end of Glasgow to an interested party, Fr Vincent ascended to the top floor and had this life-changing encounter.
“We got to the top floor and some months previously there had been a big storm, so we went to see the top floor to see if there was any leakage,” he explained. “So, we knocked on the door and this old guy opened it and he said ‘son you’re the first person I’ve spoken to in two weeks.’ He just wanted to speak to me, while the buyer wanted to know the legal stuff. I felt myself being torn between the two and I thought I’ll talk to the old guy. It might seem like a small incident, but it was significant. It was almost as if this is what I want to live for to be there for other people in a way that will comfort them. That was a significant experience.”
However, like so many young men and women who are discerning their vocation, the path is not always a smooth one and so it proved for Fr Vincent. After having initially considered a religious life, he entered St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross to do his two years of philosophy. Then, unusually, he did a spiritual year in Frascati with 120 priests and seminarians from all over the world, a formation course that encompassed the spirituality of the Focolare movement. From there, he was sent to Drygrange and was ordained a deacon. However, doubts began to set in and a couple of months before his ordination to the priesthood, he cancelled it, did a year’s teacher training as an RE specialist but then worked in Easterhouse setting up projects for young people in the north east of Glasgow. It was around this time he considered getting married. After speaking with his trusted friend, Fr Silvano Cola, who he described as a ‘very wise priest,’ Fr Vincent realised he had a choice to make between married life and the priesthood.
“At a certain point I thought, when you have to choose between two things that seem the will of God, you choose the one that costs you most,” he said. “And I thought that marriage and so on is lovely, but it isn’t all a bed of roses. I thought priesthood, that’s my cross. There’s crosses in both but I thought that’s my cross. We choose the cross, we don’t choose the joys and all that although they do come.
“So Fr Cola said to me ‘Go down to Cameroon where the Focolare has a parish, they run a school, a college, a hospital and different things. Go there for a year and see what you think.’ It was while I was there I felt like this was for me. I went as a deacon and I felt certainty and happiness at the idea of becoming a priest. I then went back to Scotland, got ordained and Bishop Joseph Devine agreed to leave me free to go with the Focolare movement back to Cameroon. I went to Cameroon in 1982 and I was ordained in September 1983.
“A vocation isn’t just something that you suddenly decide on the spot in a moment. It’s prepared by lots of little steps. For me, ultimately, vocation meant doing the will of God. So doing the will of God in small things, helps you to do the will of God when big decisions come. Was I surprised at myself? No I don’t think I was. It was a bit of a torturous journey but that’s me!”
Man on a mission Having spent the year prior to his ordination in Cameroon, Fr Vincent loved the country so much that he decided to go back and live and serve there, which he did until 1997. He was based in Fontem, in the south west of the country, on a mountain escarpment. The parish he served ranged from 300 to 8000 feet above sea level, so a lot of his time was spent trekking up and down mountains, but he described the people that he served as ‘fantastic’ and fondly remembers his many years there.
“I was amazed at the joy of the people who, by western standards would be materially poor, but socially were wealthy because of the enormous sense of community that they had. They were very welcoming and open and their way of seeing life and faith was centred upon being with other people. I never considered myself as a missionary in the classic sense of the word. I went there ostensibly to find my vocation and basically I received it by living with these people. So I received my vocation from the Bangwa people.
“And there are hundreds of stories from my time there. Some of them really funny, some really sad. The saddest one I ever remember was a guy who was lying in this very poor, not a hut, but not much of a building, like a scarecrow dying of AIDS. I went there and his wife was there—married traditionally but not sacramentally. I remember hearing his Confession, her Confession, giving them both the Sacrament of the Sick, performing their wedding and then giving them Communion. That was a very powerful experience about God in the midst of his people.
“There were several times I nearly died. One of them was hanging off a cliff, which I wrote about in a blog you can find on the Missio Scotland website (https://www.missioscotland.com/post/2019/03/11/prayers-on-a-cliff-edge). Another was driving through a gun battle between government forces and opposition forces during a civil disturbance. I had typhoid, black water fever, malaria, dysentery. There were loads of stories, lots of laughs, lots of joys and lots of sadness too. All-in-all, Cameroon was a fantastic experience. I loved the culture and I got to know it. People might say what’s the biggest thing you need to have as a missionary and I think it’s respect for the culture. You have to go with humility.”
Fr Vincent’s respect for the local people’s culture was duly noted and he was even made a chief of the rank of Duke during his time in Cameroon. And while he acknowledges that he didn’t do everything perfectly during his time there, it was only because he wanted the Church there that he was helping to build to have strong, suitable foundations, which were still evident when he returned to Cameroon in 2007. However, having accomplished all that, to a great extent, that building work has been shattered as a result of conflict in the country that began in 2016.
“I went back for a year in 2007 and while I was there people had given me lots of money from St Monica’s in Coatbridge where I was parish priest at the time,” he explained. “I built six primary schools—they were beautiful—but they’ve all been destroyed. All the people who lived in that area have all left; they have all been scattered. I’m still in touch with Bangwa people, but they’re now refugees. There are also Bangwa people in the US, Germany, France and so on and I still have a lot of contact with them.
“It’s very sad because what happened was that I was in the English speaking part of the country and they have been treated unfairly by the National Government, which is predominantly Francophone. A whole crisis developed with rebels starting to take up arms against government forces. That area where I stayed is very remote, very mountainous, very good for guerrilla warfare, so it’s an ideal place for rebels to hide out. So the army would come in and just shoot everybody and burn buildings meaning that everybody had to leave and everything that we built such as the schools—the hospital is still standing—and everything else have been destroyed. It’s almost like the destruction of Jerusalem in 72AD, everyone was scattered.
“So it’s sad, but in the midst of all that, one of the great things of African people is their capacity to be resilient, to endure no matter what and to laugh in the midst of adversity.”
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