Sunderland AFC chaplain discusses Advent, Brexit and the SAFC boss who offered to deliver a sermon
“You can be meeting MPs one minute, homeless people the next, asylum seekers and millionaires after that.”
Drawing no distinction between anyone on the above list, Father Marc Lyden-Smith is discussing his “incredibly privileged role” as parish priest at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, just yards from Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridge.
It is a list which could also include professional footballers and managers – we’ll return to the question of which boss offered to preach a sermon for him – in his additional role as chaplain to Sunderland Football Club.
And, if his life is not hectic enough already, he has also just started his fourth degree course by studying history and politics – again, more of which later – at the University of Sunderland.
Sitting in his presbytery, he continues: “I accompany people through exciting and vulnerable times from marriage to the birth of their children and from illness to death.
“People might also want their houses blessed because they think they have a ghost.
“It can be exhausting but exciting. You never know what comes next and I never feel bored. Most days you wake up excited.”
Originally from Hebburn, where he attended St Joseph’s Comprehensive School, Father Marc arrived at St Mary’s in 2014 after previously serving as a curate at St Mary’s Cathedral, in the heart of Newcastle, from 2010.
He recalls: “You joke about Craggy Island on the television with Father Ted. Yet the cathedral is in the middle of a traffic island in a vibrant and dynamic city which still had deprivation and poverty.”
Newcastle was his first post after seven years training at the former Ushaw College seminary, near Durham, following his first degree in religion and education at Newcastle University.
It was while at Newcastle University that he began to seriously consider a future in the priesthood.
Father Marc, 38, says: “I started thinking more about the good news the church was doing in the community by supporting people through difficult times and began to think there was something in this.
“I started thinking more about my faith and whether I could do this.
“People might be thinking you get struck down like St Paul did but for me it was a gradual and developed understanding.”
The community support he mentions is clearly on offer at St Mary’s.
The church’s parish centre hosts drop-in sessions every Wednesday where dozens of asylum seekers and refugees receive refreshments and advice from local charities and agencies.
Parishioners themselves also provide similar support for homeless people on Thursdays.
The Wednesday sessions, in particular, are at odds with the misconception – lazily manufactured after Sunderland counted its votes quicker than anywhere else after the 2016 Brexit Referendum – that the city is generally intolerant of outsiders.
Father Marc says: “You get tarred with this image that Sunderland, because it was pro-Brexit, is an anti-immigrant city and I do not think that is the case at all.
“It is not unreasonable or wrong to have concerns about immigration. But I think by and large that Sunderland, no matter how we voted to leave, is a welcoming city.
“As a port city we have always welcomed foreigners. We welcome them as we do here as a parish.
“We have international students who love the place as a lot of people love it and love it so much that they want to stay and give something back to the community.”
While he will not disclose who he will vote for in the December 12 General Election, he adds: “I did vote to Remain but I respect the result although I would like to see a credible framework for a deal in place rather than crashing out with no deal.
“I understand the frustrations with the bureaucracy in the European Union. But we have to be thankful for the years of peace and co-operation in Europe.
“So I hope we continue to have strong friendships with those European countries.”
Brexit is also likely to be among the topics discussed in the parish centre this Sunday, December 1, after Father Marc invited all the candidates in the Sunderland Central constituency to meet parishioners following 10.30am Mass.
He says: “While it is probably not a good idea for the Church to get involved directly in politics, it does still have a lot to say about respect and tolerance.
“From my point of view, I wanted to bring the candidates together because it is important in a democracy that we are tolerant with people who we may even profoundly disagree with and that we are tolerant with them in a framework of mutual respect and kindness.
“They might disagree on the possible cause of action of making Sunderland a better place. But what unites them is that they want it to be a better place for the people who live here.”
Sunday also marks the start of the Christian season of Advent ahead of Christmas – “Christmas does not start until Christmas Day” – and Father Marc says: “It is a period to prepare ourselves for Christ at Christmas and to prepare our hearts and minds to think of other people, to think what it means to be part of a community, to think of ourselves as gifts and to think how we use them for the community.”
The football club, of course, are an integral part of the city’s community, with Father Marc an ardent fan as well as club chaplain.
He has also appeared in the Sunderland Echo in the past offering prayers for both the team and the national side before crucial matches.
What would he say, however, to suggestions that football is perhaps too trivial a matter for divine intervention?
“For some people the football club is a major part of their lives,” he replies.
“For the footballers themselves, who have the same hopes and fears as the rest of us, there is also the pressure of going out in front of 30,000 people and how they cope with that.
“Then there are all the people who work there behind the scenes, the office staff, who have to put up with the change and the uncertainty. Do they not deserve our prayers?”
The seemingly continual change and uncertainty has seen Father Marc come into contact with several Sunderland managers since beginning his chaplaincy while working at Newcastle.
He recalls: “Sam Allardyce was a big believer in considering anything if he felt it would help even 0.1% and asked a couple of the more religious players to come and see me.
“Martin O’Neill was a really nice, deep thinking sort of fellow. He said to me once after a defeat ‘where were you at the weekend? God did not help us’. I said ‘God did not pick the team’.
And the identity of the manager who offered to help at the regular Friday training ground services?
“Paolo di Canio once offered to do the sermon. It didn’t happen.”