Family Background and Upbringing
My name is Antony Jukes and I was born and raised in Chingford, East London; one of six children in a Catholic family. From the age of nine I was an altar server and went to a Catholic secondary school next to the Franciscan friary, Woodford Green, Essex. It was there that I first met the Franciscans and, though I did not consider joining them, I used to love seeing the Friars coming into our school wearing the habit. They were very down to earth, very human and very approachable. They had a sense of joy and fulfilment in their lives as Franciscans and I liked the way they supported each another as Brothers.
When I left school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted do. I had always been strong at Maths so I applied to University to study Civil Engineering. It was during this time that I began to drift away from my Catholic faith. I continued as a Sunday Mass server but it was more out of routine and a sense of duty towards my parents than any great love for God and the Catholic Church.
A Time of Struggle
But it was after completing my degree that three things happened to me that changed the direction of my life. Firstly, during my studies I had come to realise that a job in engineering was not for me, so I made a complete career change and trained as a chartered accountant working in central London. I enjoyed the social life but as I began to earn more money I became more materialistic and money obsessed. I also became more possessive of the things I owned, unwilling to share even with my brothers and sisters. I could buy all the material things I had always wanted but it did not seem to make me happy. And I found myself caught up in the illusion that if I continued to earn money for myself, then eventually I would find happiness.
Secondly, I got engaged to be married to my girlfriend. She wasn’t a Catholic and sadly this created a lot of tension in our relationship because some of her family and friends did not approve of my being Catholic. For years I had not taken my Catholic faith seriously and yet now, during a difficult engagement, I began to question what my faith actually meant to me; was I prepared to just sit back and ignore the criticism directed at the Church?
Turning from Materialism, Turning towards God
The third thing that happened to me was that I began to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, the shrine of our Lady in France, with the sick and special needs children and adults. It was this experience with the HCPT Pilgrimage Trust that changed the direction of my life.
Working in London I was becoming more and more materialistic and money obsessed. And even though it is obviously important to have a job and earn a living to support and raise a family, I noticed that I just didn’t seem to be happy or content or fulfilled, despite having everything I wanted. But then for one week each year I would meet people in Lourdes who didn’t have money or any hope of getting a job, let alone of having a career. I met people who had been in wheelchairs for most of their life. They seemed to have absolutely nothing, not even their health, and yet they always had a genuine smile. I had everything and yet I wasn’t happy.
The people in Lourdes taught me a different set of values: they showed me by their example that true joy and everlasting happiness are not to be found in money and materialism but rather in our relationship with God which is then expressed in our relationships with the people around us, our family and friends. The people I met there also made me realise that I will never find fulfilment in life in only doing things for myself. They helped me to realise that we find our fulfilment in doing things for others, by helping others and by giving ourselves to others. It is in giving that we receive.
Rediscovering My Faith, My Love for the Church
It was also in Lourdes that I saw an incredibly joyful, loving and caring side to the Church which I had previously lost sight of. During my years at University I had not taken my Catholic faith seriously. I heard a huge amount of criticism being directed at the Church and the Catholic faith which made me question what my faith actually meant to me. And then in Lourdes, as I began to see a joyful expression of the Church and faith, I began to realise that I wanted to take my faith seriously. Rather than just listening to criticism or trying to ignore it I wanted to learn more so that I could defend my faith. The faith given me by my parents gradually became my own, in the sense that I began to take ownership of, and pride in it.
And despite the constant criticism that is so often directed at her the experience in Lourdes re-lit the flame of love within my heart. In fact the more I hear the Church criticised, the more I love her.
A Calling from God
My fiancé and I eventually broke off our engage-ment. That was the most difficult thing I had to do leading to many tears, and yet it was the right thing to do because apart from the struggles over religion there were other signs that we were not compatible.
During my final year of the accountancy exams, one day in my room, struggling to focus on my studies, for no particular reason I reached out and took a book down from the shelf. It happened to be an unused Bible that my Nan had given me for my Confirmation. Placing the Bible on the desk it fell open at a page where my eye was drawn to the bottom left corner: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).
Reading it again I then placed it back on the shelf intending to forget about it.
But that event and Jesus’s words would not leave me. I kept asking myself, why did I pick a random book down from the shelf? Was it really just coincidence that the book happened to be the Bible? Was it coincidence that it fell open on Matthew’s Gospel; and was it coincidence that my eye was drawn, not to the top of the page, but to the bottom left corner? And I began to question whether this was God’s way of reaching out to me and calling me, asking me not just to leave home and family for His sake, but to give up the possibility of raising a family of my own.
At the time this was such an insignificant event but it had a snowball effect because the thought of responding with generosity kept coming back to me and became ever more intense as I began to question whether God was calling me to a vocation to the priesthood and consecrated religious life. It was the moment when I first became aware of God’s calling.
I believe that God calls each and every one of us continuously through life but there is a moment when we first become aware of it, a moment when we first “tune-in” so to speak. I can compare it to a radio station: a radio station is continuously broadcasting sound but we are totally unaware of it. It is only when we ‘tune-in’ to the right frequency that the sound becomes clear. Likewise God is continuously calling us but we are often totally unaware of it. However, there comes a moment when we first ‘tune-in’; a moment when we become aware of God’s personal presence and calling in our life. For me that moment was when I opened the Bible. And in times of difficulty and doubt and struggle I remember that moment because it is like an anchor that holds me firmly in place during a storm.
Joining the Franciscans
When I first felt called by God I immediately felt drawn to the Franciscans. I was named after Saint Antony of Padua, one of the greatest Franciscan saints. My mum and dad had a great devotion to him and they encouraged me to pray the novena prayers in his honour. For my confirmation saint I chose Francis of Assisi, having been attracted to him through the example of the Franciscan Brothers I met at school. The chaplain of the Lourdes pilgrimage group was a Franciscan and he was a great support and friend as I tried to understand and accept God’s calling.
I simply felt at home with the Franciscans. It felt right. I never felt the need to consider the diocesan priesthood or any other religious order. Let me say: if you try to read every label on a supermarket shelf before deciding which brand to buy it will confuse you, you can waste so much time looking at the labels, studying the small print that you end up dithering, drifting from one product to another, never actually buying anything.
I once heard a comment that the largest “religious order” in the Catholic Church is the “Order of Perpetual Discerners;” those who drift from one religious order to another, asking countless people to pray for them on route; those who love the idea of religious life but are never really prepared to commit. If God is calling us to religious life then the only response we can give, in imitation of our Blessed Lady, is a firm yes: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Saying Yes to God
It took me over a year to respond to God’s calling. At the time I questioned whether God was actually calling me. But when I look back I kept God waiting because of my own lack of generosity in responding wholeheartedly, and partly because of my lack of trust. I had fear and anxiety about what lay ahead and about what people would think, especially my peers and work colleagues, but when I finally said yes to God not only were my family, friends and colleagues incredibly supportive, but I felt an enormous sense of peace that has never left me. There have been some wonderful moments that I have experienced as a Franciscan Friar and, admittedly, there have also been some difficult times and challenging moments, but it is this sense of peace, a peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27), which reassures me that God - Jesus Christ - walks with us in our vocation, in both the good times and especially in the difficult moments.