The Class of ’63

Class of '63Fifty years ago this June, 16 priests were ordained for the Archdiocese of Southwark. Trained for a  pre-Vatican II Church they were the first priests to live out their ministry guided by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

On 8th June 1963 thirteen students for the Priesthood were ordained in the chapel of St John’s Seminary, Wonersh. They were destined for pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Southwark. The same day, in Ireland, three other candidates were ordained to work in the Archdiocese. Meanwhile in the other dioceses of England and Wales, that Pentecost, a similar number of men were being ordained. For some, Ordination came after 12 years of preparation from the age of 13; others joined the course as adults and completed the training after two years of Philosophy and four of Theology.

The life and training of students, before the Second Vatican Council, was rigorously disciplined and semi-monastic, with much emphasis upon obedience to the Rule of the community. Making sacrifices was a presumed element, for example, the daily timetable was regulated by a bell; there were long periods of silence; particular friendships were discouraged; a student could not leave the building without being accompanied by two others and students were only allowed home after Christmas for two weeks and, six months later, for a Summer holiday. (Some students did not enjoy Christmas at home for 12 years.)

In June 1962, one year before the Priesthood, the candidates were ordained to the Subdiaconate. During the service, these words were addressed to the candidates, standing before the ordaining bishop; ‘you will be bound to observe chastity and to be ministers of His Church for ever. Therefore, if you desire to persevere in your holy resolve, come forward in the name of the Lord.’  All, wishing to progress to the Priesthood, took one step forward; no word was spoken, no paper signed. Canon 132 of the Code of Canon Law (1918 edition) now applied.(In Canon Law lectures, prior to this ‘step’, the Canon Lawyer, Dr Dermod Fogarty, had told students,’you can view it as a vow, if you wish, but canonists debate the question; either way, Canon Law binds you’. )

A week before receiving the Order of Subdeacon (dispensed with by the Second Vatican Council) the candidates took the Anti-Modernist oath. The Order also brought with it the imposition of the Westminster Theatre Law of 1873. This Law (also swept away by the application of the teachings of the Council ) stated that no cleric in Major Orders may attend a ‘scenicus spectaculis’ (a stage production). During the holiday prior to ordination, as was the custom, all thirteen Wonersh men went out, singly, or in pairs, to experience and enjoy as much ‘theatre’ as possible. That year Twelfth  Night was on at the Old Vic; the opera, Aida, was at Covent Garden, Ross was at the Haymarket, Anouilh’s Becket was at the Aldwych, and The Sound of Music was at the Palace. The Class of ’63 went to them all, knowing that, in the future, they would not even be allowed to go to a Shakespeare play. The penalty was draconian; just buying a ticket would be a mortal sin and automatic excommunication.(cf.Clergy Review of April 1958). It was a great sacrifice for one ordinand in particular; Ken Bell, a late vocation, who had a great love of the theatre; but he stoically accepted the Law.

Following a silent week of Retreat, led by the saintly Fr Michael Hollings, the thirteen were ordained and two weeks later given their first appointments at Archbishop’s House. On arrival at their new pastoral posts the newly ordained discovered that the Dialogue Mass had just been introduced. This was the first fruits of the Council’s work. While the Mass was still in Latin the people were now encouraged to make the responses to the priest, along with the altar servers! And the rumour was abroad that those responses might soon be in English; but, it was generally believed the Canon of the Mass (the Eucharistic centre) was so sacred that it would remain in Latin. In the coming few years the liturgical changes came thick and fast. All the newly ordained threw them-selves enthusiastically into the changes and were excited by the new concepts, e.g. that all the baptised were the People of God; that building an outward-looking community in the parish was an essential part of their role. In most parishes the young curate now found himself responsible for the new idea of promoting ‘community’ with a parish newsletter. In the new atmosphere and spirit, parish and diocesan youth work took off and three of the Class excelled in this. Dick Quinlan at Woolwich, Tony Shelley at Brighton and Tony Castle at Peckham, soon developed thriving youth provision, involving hundreds of young Catholics each week. There was, too, a new enthusiasm for Ecumenism and Pat Moloney had many satisfying years working in an ecumenical team ministry on the new town of Thamesmead, SE London. Seamus Hester also enjoyed the new experience of working in a pastoral team ministry in Crawley, Sussex.

Then in the Summer of 1968 their training in a disciplined lifestyle, accompanied by unquestioned respect for authority, was put to the test. Pope Paul VI’s letter Humanae Vitae was published and shockwaves swept round the Catholic world. Immersed in compassionate daily pastoral care they were confronted with the authoritative demands of Humanae Vitae. Confusion reigned as all pastoral priests found themselves caught between the needs and expectations of their people and a hierarchy that was divided between bishops who expected unquestioned obedience and those who sought a gentler and more pastoral response. (Few people today know and appreciate the struggle of conscience most clergy endured at that time.) Three of the Class – Stephen Hinde, Michael Ivers and David Payne – felt sufficiently strongly about the issue as to go public, by signing the famous letter of loyal dissent to The Times. (No one, at that time, claimed that it was an infallible teaching.) The short letter was signed by 55 priests and said ‘We respect the decision on birth control made by our Holy Father the Pope according to his conscience. We realise the possible grave dangers that can result from the indiscriminate use of artificial means of birth control. We deeply regret, however, that according to our consciences we cannot give loyal internal and external obedience to the view that all such means of contraception are in all circumstances wrong. As priests we feel that our duty towards Catholic people compels us to bear witness to the truth as we see it.’ (2nd October 1968)

The response of authority to the letter varied, according to which diocese you belonged to. Some of the signatories were severely censured by their bishop, some were suspended from the priesthood and never accepted back. In Southwark the signatories were punished by having their faculties to preach and hear confessions taken away for some years. Disillusioned by the Church’s lack of compassion, Michael Ivers and David Payne felt so strongly that they left the ministry. They were not the only ones struggling with disillusionment. Jim Wilson said at the time, ‘I’m fed up with belonging to everyone, and at the same time belonging to no one. Who cares for the carers?’ His disillusionment led to his departure from the active ministry; he later married and had a family. A few years earlier, Sean O’Callaghan had returned to Ireland and left to marry. In 1970 Tony Castle convinced that he had a vocation both to Priesthood and marriage, felt that he had no alternative but to leave the active ministry. He reluctantly followed this decision through in 1973. He sought and obtained a dispensation from canon 132. He and his wife celebrate their Ruby wedding anniversary this year.

Following up the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI en-couraged priests of the affluent Western nations to volunteer for pastoral work in South America.

In 1968 John Medcalf volunteered and worked with the Columban Fathers in Peru. He was shocked to find himself in a shanty town parish, called El Monton,(the mountain) just outside Lima. The ‘mountain’ was a vast garbage tip and the living conditions were indescribable! After a year John was given dozens of villages to look after in the northern Andes. Gradually, over 15 years, he set up rural libraries throughout the Andes. John had established over 600 rural libraries by the time he was forced to leave Peru, because of death threats from Government agents (they were not happy about their people reading about their history, trade unions and labour laws.) He found it virtually impossible to settle back to life in England and returned to work in El Salvador. He died in July 2002, in Spain, on his way to another foreign assignment.

Two of the Class, Ken Bell in 1977 and Joe Ware in 1983, had serious road accidents that mentally and physically incapacitated them and neither was able to work again.

On 8th June this year those that remain of the Class of ’63 will celebrate their Golden Jubilee in the communities to which they now belong. Of the sixteen priests only one, Canon Jack Madden, is still engaged in parish pastoral work. Six have died; five have left the active ministry, three have retired and one is currently seriously ill. The fuller story and biographical notes of each of these men can be found in the book, The Class of ’63 published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd and available at

Tony Castle
One of the survivors of ‘The Class of ’63’


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