by SEB JAMES
Fr Sam Fancourt was raised as a quintessential Kiwi. Chilled out, happy, no real worries and no need for God. But fast forward to 2019 and this same “knockabout bloke” became a Catholic priest of Opus Dei.
He was ordained to the priesthood at the end of May in Rome and his journey to receiving Holy Orders is nothing short of extraordinary.
He was born and raised with his two siblings in Taranaki by loving parents, both medical doctors, who, like many New Zealanders, were of good will but didn’t have faith. Life was good and the bigger existential questions were never really discussed in the family home, but that would all change once Fr Sam left home to go to university in Auckland.
“I was brought up in a family that was relatively well to do and I didn’t have any problems. Life was without any significant challenges and life without challenge induced a listlessness which, symptomatically speaking, found an outlet in a kind of hedonism of the type that one encounters with a certain frequency amongst university students,” he said.
Fr Sam made many friends at university and two of his closer friends had more going on spiritually. One was a Protestant girl and the other was a Catholic bloke.
“I didn’t think much of their Christian faith; in fact, I was becoming more and more an atheist. At first, my atheism was simply a result of the way I lived and later on, when I was maturing as a person, I became more rational in my approach and started to think through my atheistic tendencies. This was largely due to the fact that I had never been confronted with any serious reason to question that position, so my atheism progressively took on a more intellectual form.”
At the time he was confident he had built a tough intellectual fortress, but little did he know that this fortress would slowly crack under the pressure of love. The first cracks appeared with his own realisation that the pursuit of pleasure wasn’t satisfying his heart.
“The only possible fruit of my hedonistic disposition was a future of dissolution. I was going nowhere fast. I kind of gave up all the hedonism and in abandoning that I didn’t know exactly where to go. I knew that I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing previously, but I had no idea where I wanted to be.”
This gave God the time and space to apply the jackhammer to his concrete intellectual fortress through a romantic relationship with the Protestant girl he had become friends with at university. They began to talk on a deeper level. Sam was still confident with his intellectual convictions until one day his girlfriend asked ,“But have you ever prayed?”
“This threw me into a different realm of thinking because the question wasn’t intellectual but very much existential,” Fr Sam said.
So, for the first time in his life, Fr Sam began to pray, inviting God to reveal himself and then to have a relationship. This marked a profound turning point where Fr Sam began to explore the spiritual life. However, he still had the same intellectual rigour and began moving away from the Protestant Christianity of his girlfriend and towards the Catholic Christianity of his friend at university.
“While I was getting closer and closer to God, at the same time it was becoming clear that I was on a trajectory that was becoming more and more Catholic, so my girlfriend and I decided to go our separate ways. There was never any doubt, that if there was a relationship, the end purpose was marriage. She was convinced that, for a marriage to work, you need to have unity (be of the same denomination) in the family.”
But Fr Sam remains eternally grateful to her and other Protestants in his life.
“I learnt a lot from her, I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. In fact, I’ve learnt a lot from many Protestants and I’m exceedingly thankful for that because they helped me in a great variety of ways.”
But he yearned for something deeper and it was his Catholic friend’s throwaway line one day that “there’s a girl called St Teresa and she’s like a master of prayer” that resonated with his own desires: “Man, that’s what I want.”
“I started reading the classics of spiritual literature, most particularly the works of St Teresa of Avila. One day my Catholic friend (from university) offered me the opportunity to go on a retreat which I leapt at; it happened to be a retreat run by Opus Dei. It was fantastic because I was looking for something with a solid ascetical spirit. I found the importance of a deep interior life stressed on the retreat as I had found it in the writings of St Teresa.”
His friend wasn’t regularly attending activities run by Opus Dei, but it was there that Fr Sam felt at home in the Catholic faith. He started to see that he could also help people to foster a true interior life and grow closer to God: “You don’t have to become a religious or a priest to become a saint, but, in fact, you can have an incredible relationship with God [while] living an ordinary life — studying, raising kids, working etc. . . . “
Through prayer, Fr Sam felt called by Christ to dedicate himself completely to helping people live and learn this message, and so he became a numerary member of Opus Dei. This meant while he was working as a computer programmer during the day, outside of working hours he would be free to run formative activities, mentor many young people and the like.
But after many years of work and running these activities, an opportunity arose to deepen his theological and philosophical knowledge by studying, first in Spain, and then in Rome. This move also gave the possibility of being called to the priesthood a very real likelihood (this being possibility for all celibate men in Opus Dei). He was aware that Opus Dei, like everywhere in the Church, needs priests.
“I certainly was always open to the priesthood from the time I converted, but I never had to think about it because I always knew I was doing what God wanted me to do at each moment. But when I came here to Rome to study, the possibility of being ordained became more real and I became more enthused about the idea that I could be especially dedicated to the service of souls. So when the call finally came I was able to respond with a very firm conviction, and a lot of joy. ”
Fr Sam is always in awe of what God has done with his life.
“The biggest surprise is just being here at all because it was the last thing I would have expected two decades ago. But in a certain sense there’s a certain amount of joy in that because, while God writes in many and various ways, I kind of have the impression that he’s not a great fan of straight lines.”
Fr Sam hopes to visit New Zealand soon, but will remain in Rome for some months to finish his doctoral thesis.