Introducing the Permanent Diaconate: Deacon John WalshThursday 16th November 2023
This Autumn, we’re getting to know a little more about our permanent diaconate programme, as well as the five permanent deacons currently serving across the diocese.
Having already spoken to Deacon Stephen Scott, assistant director of the programme, we were delighted to then catch up with Deacon John Walsh, from St John Henry Newman parish in Urmston, to find out more about his path to ministry.
“I was born in 1961 in Old Trafford, and I am a United fan”, Deacon John began.
“I was very blessed with my parents. They were very, very good parents and provided myself and my sister with everything we needed physically, but also mentally and spiritually. From a faith side – without being dragooned into anything, our Catholic faith was non-negotiable when we were young. We went to the Catholic school, went through the whole Catholic programme, went to Sunday Mass each week – we never questioned it.”
This strong sense of faith was further cemented when he married his wife, Kathleen, 40 years ago. Also from an Irish Catholic family, Kathleen’s experience of faith was strikingly similar to her husband’s, providing the bedrock for the next generation of their family.
But it wasn’t until John reached his mid-40s that faith took a different turn in life, as a successful career in construction and utilities shifted the focus of everyday life.
Deacon John said: “My working life has always been busy and in 2005, I started my own business. Like a lot of people nowadays, life was that busy that we actually stopped going to Mass on a regular basis. So, it was the first time – at 40 plus years of age – that I started to really think about things. I realised that for many, many years, we went through rote because it was just what we’d always done.”
Deacon John’s career went from strength to strength, taking his business from a standing start to a tier one contractor for Scottish Power in Liverpool in just a few years. In the meantime, further blessings came with the marriage of John’s daughter and the arrival of his first grandchild, all of which triggered a certain realisation in John’s mind.
He said: “During that period – although things were really successful – I started to realise that I wasn’t really satisfied. I was restless.
“I didn’t really know what it meant, but while I didn’t go to Mass on a regular basis, I don’t ever believe I lost my faith and I always prayed. But I realised that I only prayed when there was an issue and somehow, that didn’t seem right.”
Taking these thoughts to his ever-supportive wife, Kathleen, the couple reflected that with all the joys and successes in their life, they “should be on their knees every morning” in thanks.
A Period of Prayer
Struck by these words, John began the process of responding more consciously to faith. Whilst out and about working in Liverpool, John began to pray in the car, until he realised that Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral was open all day for prayer. Having developed a pattern of praying before the Blessed Sacrament, John then realised he could attend 7am Mass, and after that, his family began to go back to Sunday Mass at their parish on a regular basis once again.
“I remember the first day that I made this concrete decision that I would go back regularly, I thought that nothing had changed, and I said to the Lord: ‘If I’m going to carry on with this faith, I need you to show me or tell me what it’s all about.’ And, of course, that’s very dangerous!”
During this time, John began to explore a variety of different ways to explore more about his faith, trying different prayer groups, reading works from figures such as Thomas Merton, and seeking advice from different priests. It was one August with the Gospel story of Jesus walking on water and a homily about stepping out of the boat that an idea about the permanent diaconate was planted in John’s mind.
After speaking to Kathleen, John then turned to one of the priests supporting him, who said: “that’s for you.”
Coinciding with the beginnings of the permanent diaconate programme in our diocese, this signalled the start of John’s diaconal journey.
Life in Formation
He continued: “I went into formation and during that time, I lost my business, almost lost my house, I was hospitalised three times, so you do start to wonder.
“I wasn’t working as much as I was, so I had to time to study for my diaconal training, and because I was experienced and had a lot of different training, I was able to do some consultancy work. Money just seemed to present itself – just not in a manna from heaven sort of way!
“It was quite a period of turmoil, but it made me realise that you can’t do anything of your own volition. You have to put your trust in God. So now, every time I roll out of bed in the morning, I abandon myself to Him and say: “Right, you take over.”
“But you’ve just got to remember, you don’t know where He’s going to take you!”
Family, work, diaconate
More than 12 months on from ordination, Deacon John is now a familiar fixture at St John Henry Newman parish in Urmston, where he undertakes a variety of different duties from baptising people, to preaching at Mass, ministering at the altar, and making plans to establish initiatives such as prayer groups and Holy Hours.
He said: “Fr Gerard Kelly is my spiritual director and he’s a great support. I’m also very blessed in the parish with Fr Kieran Mullarkey and Fr David Quiligotti – they’re amazingly supportive and understanding. They’re very conscious that I work full-time and that I’m married, and you’ve got to get that balance right.”
Deacon John is also extremely grateful to his employer Aidan Conway, managing director of Thermal Road Repairs, who is so supportive of Deacon John’s ministry and has helped support some key diocesan projects, such as the Laudato Si’ Centre, where he sponsored an accessible walkway through the woodland area, created under the supervision of Deacon John with help from the TRR team.
But throughout the process, the support of one key person has had a formative impact on Deacon John’s ministry, highlighting how the balance of family, work, and diaconal life can have a flourishing effect on this remarkable ministry.
Deacon John said: “Kathleen is just so supportive – of everything. And it’s actually her support that started to speak to me about how I needed to give something back – not just to Kathleen – but in general. It’s just her attitude. She puts everyone first – the children, the grandchildren, myself. She’s got time for everybody.
“I never underestimate the role she’s played in all of this because being a deacon is about service and she’s just an amazing example of that. Kathleen leads a Christian life. I talk about it, but she leads it.”