By Susan Gately - 29 September, 2018
A journalist who worked for 20 years as a political correspondent in Northern Ireland has described in moving terms her call to religious life and the joy of life in the convent.
Martina Purdy entered the Adoration Sisters on the Falls Road, Belfast, in 2014. Up to that point she had enjoyed a successful career as a BBC television journalist, covering landmark political events like the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. She had also worked for the Belfast Telegraph. Despite a life that many would envy – a great job, foreign holidays, a lovely apartment – it did not satisfy her.
In 2013, Sr Purdy travelled to Lima, Peru, but enjoying a lavish holiday surrounded by poverty did not sit well with her. In the church of St Martin de Porres she asked Jesus to help her change. “To be more centred on him, not on me,” Sr Purdy said during an interview on Today with Sean O’Rourke.
But she admitted there was a touch of Saint Augustine’s prayer about her plea: “Help me change – but not yet!”
Another key moment in the journey, she said, was an encounter with the Jesuit campaigner, Fr Peter McVerry. She had been asked to help out with the Faith and Life Convention* and while there, she attended Fr McVerry’s workshop. “He said if you want to share in the kingdom, you can have it right now. Give up everything and follow Jesus.” With his words ringing in her ears, she went on holiday afterwards to Italy. “I didn’t buy handbags that trip! When I came back I felt my possessions were weighing me down … And then came this fleeting thought: ‘Give your life to God’. This became a burning desire, on my mind all the time.”
She approached a local priest, who also happened to be the director of vocations for the diocese of Down and Connor, and on the train back from a North–South ministerial meeting, signed up for a retreat.
Sr Purdy told Sean O’Rourke that she considered her entry into religious life very carefully. She realised there could be no return to the BBC if she changed her mind. She weighed up the consequences – not marrying, not having a family. “To my shame, I counted the cost before I went in.
“I thought foolishly that if I gave my life to God, I’d have to give things up but what I’ve learnt after four years in the convent is I gave up nothing and I got everything. The Lord has given me everything and more. You live your life on a spiritual plain and He gives you all the gifts you need to get through the day, but it is a very joyful life. You can’t live an authentic spiritual life without living an authentic human life, and I’m in love with Jesus Christ, He is my spouse and He gives me everything I need.”
Questioned about how her BBC colleagues reacted to her entry into religious life, Sister Martina said some thought she’d had a breakdown. “I had a supernatural encounter with the living God and if you have a strong faith you can understand that but if you don’t it’s much easier to believe that I’m crazy, because the alternative is quite frightening – that I had an encounter with God.”
Some of her colleagues wanted to stage an intervention to whisk her away from the convent, believing she was having a mid-life crisis. But when they saw how happy she was, they changed their minds.
Asked if her faith had been shaken by the abuse scandals, she said her faith was not based on what happens with individuals in the Church. “I put no faith in princes, I put my trust in God. Yes, I weep and I feel the pain of what is happening and like a lot of people in the Church I mourn and I’m upset and angry about what happened in the past. But I also have to acknowledge that the Church is a family – the family of families and no family is perfect.”
Agreeing this was “the worst crisis the Church has ever encountered”, Sr Purdy said she liked Pope Francis’s message of mercy. “If you are waiting for a perfect priest to give your confession to, you’ll have a long wait. If you’re waiting for a perfect Church, you’ll not darken the door.”
*This year’s Faith & Life Convention takes place today, Saturday, 29 September in Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock, Belfast, with registration at 9am. The Faith and Life Convention is a forum for people from across the diocese and beyond, to gather together and take part in a range of conversations about the meaning of faith and its relevance to every area of our lives. The keynote speaker at this year’s event is Cardinal Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, S.D.B. See the convention website for further information.