Fr Marcus Stock is beaming about the bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome. The bishops, he says, enjoyed each other’s company, got “positive feedback” from the dicasteries, and felt a greater sense of communion with St Peter. Many of them were “deeply moved” by their meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. It didn’t start out that way: some bishops were initially apprehensive, “questioning whether it was an effective use of their time”.
Fr Stock organised it all, even arranging a cake and card (signed by all the bishops) for Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton on his birthday. When I meet Fr Stock a week later some bishops have already sent him letters of thanks.
He, too, enjoyed the trip, and says the formal photographs of the occasion don’t capture the sense of fun and camaraderie. “After a while I began to see past the purple zuchettos and just saw them as a really great bunch of priests, enjoying each other’s company, among whom I felt very welcomed.” For Fr Stock, the new general secretary of the bishops’ conference, it was a jump in the deep end: he had only started the job in November. Before that, he was a parish priest in Coleshill, on the outskirts of Birmingham, and the director of the archdiocesan schools commission. Described by colleagues as “meticulous”, he was handpicked for the job by his former boss, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster.
He is not, therefore, a bishops’ conference insider. And it seems, from the way he talks, that he is prepared to make some pretty serious changes.
When I meet him at Eccleston Square, he comes across as considerate and down to earth; his cheeriness is gentle and reserved.
In his office Maggie Doherty from the Catholic Communications Network (CCN) is there to take notes, and to start with the conversation is a little uncomfortable. Fr Stock fidgets slightly with a pair of glasses, folding and unfolding the arms.
There’s one question in particular I’m worried about asking — about the bishops’ conference being viewed as bureaucratic and irrelevant to ordinary Catholics. But when I do raise the subject, he does not dismiss the idea; in fact, he is remarkably open to criticism. “You have to take people’s perceptions seriously,” he says. His voice, soft and reassuring, does not suggest any discomfort. “One of the things I see for me to do is actually take seriously people’s understanding and see if there’s any truth in it. And if there is any truth in it then to address those issues.” He mentions that, as a parish priest, he “wasn’t that much aware of what the bishops’ conference secretariat did”, even though he helped to raise money for it. Most parish priests would be the same, he says: they’d be aware broadly of the work, but not “the detail and the extent”.
He stresses that changes should not be carried out rashly, and that his first year would be in the “listen, look and learn” mode. “To be done well and properly and thoroughly it needs time,” he says. “You can’t walk into an organisation and make rash judgments because there’s always a history behind the way things are done. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a mandate to carry out change, but it does mean you’ve got to be careful about how you do it. You’ve got to take people with you.” He praises the bishops’ conference – he says it does an “amazing amount of work on limited resources”. He also emphasises that it “serves the needs of the bishops” and is not an independent body (the bishops’ conference proper, he says, is the two meetings the bishops have each year; at Eccleston Square is the bishops’ conference secretariat).
It’s clear, though, that he has an eye on the money. “Part of my vision is to see how we can use the resources as effectively as possible because they are charitable resources, at the end of the day we’re a charity, and it is incumbent upon us to use the money wisely and efficiently.” As a parish priest, he says, he used to do the accounts himself. “It enabled me to know what was coming in and what was going out, where we were spending money and where we could make savings. I think the leader of any organisation needs to be very clear about the resources that are available and where they are being used.” Fr Stock’s approach is very analytical. He separates business into three areas: “the musts, the shoulds, the coulds”. The musts are the core work; the coulds, on the other hand, are “the things you do on a rainy day if you’ve got pots of money swishing around”.
The core business of the secretariat, he says, are those areas where “the voice of the bishops collectively needs to be represented”. He says the media are absolutely crucial in this. “And I’m not just saying that to butter up Maggie.” (Fr Stock’s good humour expresses itself frequently, as it does here, in a bashful and mischievous kind of laugh.) Often when talking about his new role, Fr Stock refers to his experience as a parish priest. And it seems to be how he sees himself: after all, this is the first time since he was ordained about 20 years ago that he has not been serving in a parish.
He is, he admits, finding it a hard adjustment to make. “There isn’t the regularity,” he says. “As a parish priest you have Mass at a certain time every morning for the parish and your weekend is mapped out for you by your obligations, whereas here it’s the reverse – I’m twiddling my thumbs at the weekend.” When I ask what the biggest crisis has been in his life he says “the adjustment you have to make when you leave a parish”.
“It doesn’t sound like a huge crisis but you build up very, very close relationships with your parishioners and it’s very difficult to leave them… You’ve been given unique access to people’s lives when you’re there as a parish priest a long time – 10 years at my last parish – you grow up with them and they grow up with you. It’s like being part of a family.” In fact, when he first heard about his appointment in April last year, he asked if he could stay on in his parish until November when the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux were scheduled to visit. He sounds a bit sheepish: “They very graciously let me stay on, and my predecessor very graciously stayed on in his post here.” St Thérèse worked “real miracles”, he says. He talks of two police officers who had been marshalling traffic outside and who went into the church almost out of curiosity. “I don’t think they were Catholics but they knelt down and prayed and as they walked out they were both shedding tears, both clearly moved by the occasion.” Another man came up to him at 2am in the morning “to pour his heart out, in tears about his prayer life and the way he’d lived his life as a Catholic and wanting to renew his faith”.
I get the impression that Fr Stock has the same kind of emotional engagement with his own faith. His family are from the evangelical wing of the Church of England and by the time he converted at the age of 19 he had already developed a “deep love” of Christ and of holy scripture. He applied to enter seminary in his last year at university (he was at Oxford) but the idea was first planted in his head by an Anglican curate when he was only 11.
His inspiration to continue his training, he says, came not from any priest but from the Sisters who cooked and looked after the seminarians in Rome. “It was their daily work, their personal sacrifice, doing all the menial things with very little praise or recognition,” he says.
His job was to get up at 4am and drive them to the food market – and it was here, he says, that he first learned about Italian cooking. “The wives [at the stalls] would ask the Sisters what they’d be giving the lads this week, and the Sisters would talk about their own recipes. I was all ears, and clocked it, and so when I came back to England I used to try out these typical Roman recipes.” One source says that Fr Stock is the best Italian cook in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. His favourite recipe, he says, is porchetta di Ariccia – roast loin of pork coated and stuffed with fennel and herbs. But he admits he hasn’t had the chance to test out his cooking in London.
It seems like he’s left an awful lot of friends – and grateful recipients of his porchetta – back in Birmingham. Would he like to go back? “I do miss Birmingham, but I’ve been asked to do a job and I’ll do it to the best of my ability. It’s a big responsibility – all the jobs I’ve been asked to do I’ve never felt up to the mark. But you want to justify the faith that others put in you. You don’t want to let other people down.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (12/3/14)
The Catholic Herald comment guidelines
•Do not make personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters – respond only to their arguments.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund