Comboni Missionaries – The Sell
I had already decided, mainly because of Fr. Maloney and my mother’s pride, that I wanted to enter the priesthood, that I was sold on the idea of being a priest. It seemed like a great career move. It had status. I had also wanted to be a footballer and play for Scotland but this seemed equally as good.
So, when Fr. Tavano hit town when I was just 10 years of age I was an easy sell. He had been sent by the missionary order the Verona Fathers, an offshoot of the Jesuits, to find boys who would become priests.
Greenock was a fertile area for him as he grabbed five boys on the trip. Greenock was a place, in those days, where the British Army were able to grab lots of boys to join up. It sounded great – certainly compared to a life in Greenock. OK, you night go to war and have people shoot at you – but at least in the Army that was just a might.
Great Salesman for Comboni Missionaries
Fr. Tavano really sold. He would have made an excellent salesman in another profession. He sold and he sold and he sold. He made the college, where we would be living, sound like an upmarket holiday resort. Then there was the opportunity of foreign travel to exotic Africa when you became a priest.
He told us that we would have a tour of the surrounding district every Wednesday. Little did we know that this would be virtually the only time we were allowed out of the grounds. Even this was heavily supervised. The junior head boy would be at the front and the priest who was head of the junior school, Fr. Pinkman (of him, more later), would be at the back.
One of the Greenock boys, Liam Gribben, who joined at the same time as I did felt hard done by as regards the walk around the locale. He had thought that these would be bus tours. After all the local bus company in Greenock, Doigs, regularly advertised tours to places like Loch Lomond at advantageous rates. Unfortunately for us these rates were well beyond the means of our parents.
Maybe he had yearned to do something like that. Maybe he had seen the ads and begged his parents to go. Now there was an opportunity to go on a tour every week.
However, Fr, Tavano was a born salesman and a tour was how he described the weekly walk. I bet he would have sold lots of houses or second hand cars. Unfortunately for us he was not just selling us a commodity that we could sell on. He was selling us a philosophy and a way of life.
With slides of the college and Africa and a description of the lifestyle, he was on a winner. At the end he asked the 10 and 11-year-old boys who wanted to come. I remember that quite a few hands went up. Mine was one of them.
I don’t know what happened to the others. Perhaps their parents told them not to be so daft. Mine were proud of me and proud that the local priests were so proud as well. I volunteered myself they said. It wasn’t down to any of them at all.
It was a great summer. I was special. I was going to become a priest. I had a vocation. I was chosen by God. I was specially picked out of so many other people by God. I was to be his chosen one.
By God those were heady days for a ten / eleven year old (my birthday was in June).
Other people were desperate to know what a vocation was like. How did I know I was called by God? What did it feel like? It was like I had the secret of life, the Holy Grail.
To be perfectly frank I was as in the dark as they were but I explained it all to them – like it was explained to me. They nodded as I explained – but I could see that they still felt a bit on the outside.
My Vocation to the Priesthood
I was not on the outside. I was right bang on the inside. I was chosen and they were not. I must admit it was hard not to get a superiority complex. How could you not when God had specially picked you out? He wanted you and not the rest of them. He didn’t want them. He wanted you.
And I was only just reaching my eleventh birthday. Life was so full of hope. This was the sixties when hope abounded among the young anyway. And the rest of them weren’t even God’s chosen ones.
We had it in spades!
A Gang of Brothers
I was put in touch with the other guys who would be ‘entering the priesthood’ as we thought at the time. In total there were five boys from Greenock, including myself. It was a particularly good catch by Fr. Tavano. I don’t think that he got as many anywhere else including London.
We spent the summer together – the Chosen Few. It was a time of great optimism. We had a whale of a time together. I remember that we hit it off greatly and we laughed a lot – in fact a hell of a lot. It seemed that people chosen specially by God had quite a lot in common. We were like brothers in arms. In fact looking back perhaps that was the greatest summer of my life. Life stretched out long in front of us – and we were going to be in God’s special legion.
We really believed that we were all going to be priests – the whole five us. We felt that we had already passed the audition. We believed that we had already been selected, that all we needed now was the training.
Fr. Tavano didn’t tell us otherwise – although he must have known. It seems that only about one in twenty of the boys ‘chosen by God’ in this way actually make it through to the priesthood.
Some of them leave having ‘lost their vocation’ along the way. The majority, though, are simply ignominiously dumped. There remains the strong suspicion that some were dumped to save paedophile priests from being found out when the boys got a little older and wiser.
Can you imagine how it feels to be selected by God and then dumped by his emissaries on earth?
What would you do after that?
I remember once reading that John Lennon said that when the Beatles broke up when he was in his late twenties he wondered “what do you do after you’ve been a Beatle?”
When Your Vocation is Gone
I think that, to an even greater extent, we could ask the same question. “What do you do after you’ve been specially chosen By God – and then he no longer wants you”?
The answer sadly for many of those who were rejected is ‘not much’.
As I said, only about one-in-twenty of those ‘chosen by God’ actually make it through to the priesthood and Fr. Tavano didn’t tell us about that when we signed up. We thought we were already there.
We were called by God – and then, seemingly, he dumped us because we had become’defiled’ by one of his servants.
I was in St Peters from September 1961 to Easter 1963. I experienced the same abuse. I wiped the memory until my father died many years later. I can remember the priest but not his name. He ran the infirmary and that is where the abuse took place. Has anyone got a group photo of that period so I can identify him.
It was Fr Valmaggia. You can find further details about him in a search of this website.