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UK | A Priest's Testimony: Fr. Michael Cullinan on Joining the Priestly Fraternities

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

L-R: Fr. Michael Hall, Fr. Michael Cullinan, Fr. John Saward, Fr. Terry Tastard

I first came across the Order when I was an undergraduate reading mathematics at Oxford. I often used to go to the weekday evening Mass at Blackfriars, but I didn’t know any of the community. Later, after I began postgraduate studies at Cambridge in 1978, a friend from the Catholic Chaplaincy entered the Order and I visited him many times at Oxford. At the same time, the Assistant Chaplain to students at Cambridge was a Dominican and he gave a series of talks on the Faith from a Thomistic perspective. I found this attractive, as was the relaxed, open and welcoming community I saw as a guest at Oxford.

I was already considering a vocation to the priesthood, but wasn’t sure of its form. I continued my mathematical career, eventually expressing an interest in the Order, but was challenged about my suitability for community life.

I then became a tenured University Lecturer in Dublin but the desire for priesthood continued and I entered the Westminster Diocesan Seminary in 1988. I persevered and was ordained a priest in 1995. Soon afterwards I was approached by Maryvale Institute, which is based in the house in Birmingham named by St John Henry Newman, to mark student work for their undergraduate theology degree. Having served in three London parishes, I was allowed by my diocese to go to Rome in 2000 to get a Licence in Moral Theology in order to enhance my usefulness to Maryvale. I studied at the Angelicum and deepened my knowledge of and preference for the Thomist approach, as the one faithful both to tradition and to rational enquiry, and also most positive about the role of the passions as a good and vital part of our humanity.

After the Licence, I completed a Doctorate on the ethical teaching of St Paul at the Alfonsianum and then returned to England to publish it as a book. The opportunity to become part of Maryvale’s full-time staff arose in 2009 and I have worked there since, but continue to live in and minister in London.

The interest in the Dominican way of life never quite went away, but for some years there was no Priestly Fraternity. Eventually, I heard that one had been revived and decided to see what it was like. I liked it and seemed to be acceptable and so I was clothed as a Novice on 22 January 2019 and (delayed by COVID!!) professed on 14 October this year.

It’s not that easy to say why I’ve taken this step. The first reason has to be the grace of God, of course, but I can think of at least two reasons that have guided me.

Diocesan priests live a fairly isolated life nowadays and need – and are encouraged – to look for ways in which they can get support. Some find this in their parishes, others in various kinds of associations and the company of like-minded priests. It is, perhaps, less usual to join a group whose members you haven’t directly chosen to associate with, but from what I know of psychology this is a safer way to be challenged and helped to grow and also a very good way to find friendship. Dominican communities aren’t formed merely to provide friendship or even support. You don’t join them out of personal preference but because you have a Dominican vocation. The Rule of St Benedict has the community existing for you, but the Rule of St Augustine makes you exist for the community and its purpose. This makes the group you join more varied and outward-looking and less prone to narrowness and exclusivity.

There is another reason I felt drawn to a Dominican group. As a Catholic theologian in a very turbulent period in the Church’s history I need explicitly theological as well as spiritual help to discern where the truth lies and to avoid either being carried along by every wind of doctrine on the one hand; or frozen into a rigid and closed conservatism on the other. The Dominican tradition of commitment to truth, open argument, and a balanced view of the competing claims of stasis and change are very necessary today, not only for the individual theologian but also for the whole Church.

Fr. Michael Cullinan