Video: Former Manchester United player Fr Phil Mulryne on the road from football to faith

Father Phil Mulryne at Lowe Church In South Belfast with Ross Monro from Lowe Church, Phil's former PE teacher Sean McGourty and former teacher Paul Buchanan. Picture Matt Bohill.
Andy Watters

PHIL Mulryne walked into a Belfast chapel for a ‘Life of the spirit’ seminar still “in footballer mode” but he left it a different person after an intense spiritual encounter.

Later he went to confession and everything from his previous existence as a footballer came tumbling out.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

“I walked out of that confession box as if a burden had been lifted,” he said.

“The next morning it was as if everything was new: The birds singing, the wind…”

Not long afterwards he came out of Mass one day and suddenly he knew what he wanted to do.

“I said: ‘I want to be a priest’, it just came to me out of nowhere,” he says.

When they heard the news, his friends couldn’t take it in and Fr Mulryne admits he had doubts of his own about life in the priesthood.

He had always loved the craic with the lads and when it came to nights out, his hand was the first up. A Fergie Fledgling at Manchester United, a Northern Ireland international and a Championship winner and Premier League player at Norwich City, he had all the trappings of the professional footballer: the money, the cars, the clothes...

He had a girlfriend too and they were talking about getting married before life took him in a radically different direction on a path he feels was meant for him.

“In my mind I thought: How can I be a priest?” he says.

“I was a footballer and all that comes with that and I thought that was incompatible with the life of a priest, it’s not the usual avenue you take.

“Yet, at the same I felt this desire, I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I got the courage up to enter the seminary and that was it. I remember thinking: ‘I’ll just try it and if it doesn’t work at least I can put it to the side’. I had the feeling that if I didn’t try it I’d spend the rest of my life regretting it. There were loads of doubts, I never thought about this for myself but in that first year I enjoyed every minute of it.

“It wasn’t a struggle, I was loving the study and the praying, everything. There was an ease with the life.”

Phil Mulryne became Fr Mulryne two years ago and said his first Mass at his native St Oliver Plunkett Church in Lenadoon on July 10, 2017. As a Dominican Friar, he has found contentment and the true happiness that his football career could never give him.

“I always believed in God,” he says.

“I always believed that he could intervene in my life and was guiding my life but that didn’t always translate into the way I lived my life, I have to be honest about that.

Sometimes we can arrive at a destination and only then think of the things that led us there. Fr Mulryne calls them “signposts”, indicators that kept him in touch with his faith throughout his life.

“Two religious people who stand out with Northern Ireland were Stuart Elliott and, from a Catholic perspective, Damien Johnson,” he recalls.

“I roomed with Damien, he was a pioneer, and he would take out his Bible and read it.

“I mocked him about it at times but he was unapologetic about it.

“Then, when I went to Norwich, Peter Grant would have been taking me to Mass on a Sunday. ‘Right lets go, this is an important day,’ he would say. There was Malky Mackay, another Catholic, who was strong in his faith.

“They were all signposts even though I didn’t know it at the time.”

Even Delia Smith, the Norwich City chairman, had an impact: “I always remember her on a Saturday evening.

“After a game we’d be getting ready to go out on the town and she be driving off to go Mass. I spoke to her recently about a book she is writing on Faith and Science.”

The spark that was always inside him found the oxygen to grow when injuries and, he admits, too much of the high life began to affect his football career. He was in the USA when another pulled hamstring left him looking at maybe six more months on the sidelines.

He came home and, with encouragement from his family, began working in a homeless shelter, joined The Legion of Mary and started attending Mass regularly. His spiritual awakening at the ‘Life of the Spirit’ seminar led him to where he is today.

“God created us,” he says.

“God sustains us, he is the one who moulded us, the very fact that we exist is because he has given us being and we return to him.

“He is the very source of my life so being in contact with him is like oxygen, it’s spiritual oxygen. I need it, in the past I didn’t realize that. Now I need it and if I go a day without really praying I really feel a difference.

“It’s difficult to communicate that to other people because they need to have a personal experience of it themselves which changes everything.

“For some reason, I don’t know why, God contacted me. I had a couple of very powerful encounters that were unmistakable that God existed and he was concerned about my life and that has stayed with me over the last 10 years since my conversion.”

When he entered the seminary 10 years ago, he studied to be a parish priest but felt drawn to a contemplative life and considered becoming a monk. That would have meant seclusion from the outside world and the Dominican Order offered a sort of halfway house between the two.

“I didn’t want to live a life where I was completely lost in activity either, I wanted a deep prayer life and the Dominicans fit the bill,” he explains.

“In the monastery we live a very intense prayer life but we come and go for teaching and preaching.

“Another reason was there were a lot of young brothers, the Dominicans get lots of vocations and lots of young men are joining us and I thought: ‘There is a future here in this order’ which is important if you’re going to give your life to something. Thirdly, I met some Dominicans who were very holy men and they inspired me.”

So now he is one of the 175 Dominicans in Ireland scattered throughout 28 priories, many dating back to the 13th century. For the past two years he has been based at Newbridge College in Kildare where he teaches religious knowledge to the fifth and sixth year pupils and coaches the football team twice a week. He was due to move to Rome for further study but was recently appointed to the important position of Novice Master and will take charge of first year Dominican students.

“Taking the new students through the first year of their Dominican life is a really important role and a big responsibility,” he says.

“I’ll have to make a decision on whether these men are suited to this way of life or not.

“Men who enter the Order in the first year – it’s like a spiritual bootcamp; you’re praying, you’re reading, you’re studying, it’s a real initiation and a detachment from the world, from the life you’ve lived before. Those students have a priest in charge of them and I’ve been given that role. I move to Cork in the summer.”

During his first year in the seminary he watched a match on TV and then went up to his room and cried. He says the tears came “out of nowhere” and feels he was mourning the loss of his football career.

He gets three weeks’ off in the summer and spends one of them in England catching up with his old football mates. His friends are still his friends but the time they spend together is different.

“We don’t go out to nightclubs any more,” he says, smiling.

“The guys who I would have hung around with are married now and settled down with kids, so we’ve all changed. I can see they react differently to me now which is strange sometimes but the key friendships I had have stayed there.

“If I go to Norwich and they invite me out, that’s fine and I go out but I’m always trying to think: ‘What’s appropriate? Is it appropriate for me to be here?’ I’m always trying to balance that because I’m a priest now and people look at me in a different way, you have to set an example and you’re representing something.”

His switch from footballer to priest attracted headlines all over the world and little wonder in this day and age. As he speaks, a lady passes by and presses some money into his hand. “God bless you, take care,” he says.

After years of earning thousands of pounds a week he took a vow of poverty when he entered the Dominican Order and signed away all his worldly possessions. Nowadays he doesn’t have a bank account.

“In the beginning it wasn’t hard to leave the football life behind,” he says.

“I don’t know if I got a lot of grace or what it was but I was able to leave it very easily but in recent years I have started to feel the pinch.

“It’s not that I hanker after the lifestyle of having a Ferrari or nice holidays and stuff but every now and again I think: ‘Ah, I’d love to go on a holiday for a week’ or ‘I’d love to go and watch a game’.

“The vow of poverty means that you can’t have a bank account and six months before ordination I had to sign everything I owned over to someone else so that no-one in the community has access to money, the community gives you what you need.

“I found that absolutely liberating coming from a very materialistic lifestyle but every now and again humanity kicks in. My friends ring me and tell me what they’re doing or where they’re going and you feel the pinch.

“Then you realize: ‘I’ve been there and I’ve done it and it was great but it wasn’t everything’ and you bring yourself back to reality. I’m a human being, I do miss things but I feel very privileged now as well.”

His dad had a conversation with him before he entered the seminary.

“Are you really sure about this?” he asked.

“It’s a difficult life; celibacy and all of that.”

Mulryne says the vow of celibacy – the idea of devoting everything to the service of God - was one of the things that attracted him to the priesthood.

“The priest’s life is supposed to be purely at the service of other people,” he says.

“As a Friar, I’m called out all the time now to visit people so if I had a wife and kids that would be much more difficult. To be married with a family is an all-encompassing vocation in itself. The idea of celibacy is just a different way of loving and you’re trying to give the entirety of your person solely and the disposal of Christ to be used by him.

“I saw it as something very beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough, I wanted to be married and I wanted to have children but this is a sacrifice you make, it’s a vocation and I felt called to that.

“I really believe in it. It needs to be lived properly and faithfully and it’s something I chose. No-one is forcing a priest to be celibate, you choose this way of life because you think God has brought you to it. I freely chose it.”

Or maybe it chose him?

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