A conversion of faith

The chairperson of St Brigid’s Parish Council shares his story with Martin O’Brien

Few if any of the 1,500 delegates attending this week-end’s Down and Connor Living Church Congress can recount as remarkable a faith journey as that of Brett Lockhart QC.


And there may be few in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast Congress venue who can match or surpass the top barrister in talking up the Church or display such knowledge of and commitment to her teaching. 


Brett Lockhart, who has made headlines representing the Omagh families, is the sort of person the Church needs very much. 


The 53 year old married father of four sons speaks of his faith and his Church with the zeal of the convert he is and enriches her deliberations with the gifts and perspective of the Presbyterian he once was.


Married to Aine (nee Mageean), the chairperson of Down and Connor’s Youth Commission he’s himself chairperson of St Brigid’s Parish Council in south Belfast.  Aine, once a GP is a distant relative of Dr Daniel Mageean, former bishop of Down and Connor.


She retired as a full-time doctor to care for their severely autistic son, Patrick, now eighteen and boarding in a special school near Belfast most of the year.



Mr Lockhart says bringing up Patrick transformed their lives with its attendant stages of grief and the challenge of “embracing him as the person he is”.


He describes the congress as “a very positive development” commending Bishop Noel Treanor for taking the “healthy step of going through a very intensive listening process” which produced the five themes of lay participation, clergy support, welcoming Church, faith and worship and the passing on of the faith.



He interprets these as “a yearning by Catholic people to rediscover the roots and riches of their faith and to recover hope after a very difficult time for both priests and people resulting from the awful abuse crisis”.


Brett sees the congress as “an opportunity to rediscover the identity of the people of God not just in the parish but in the diocese and for the recovery of hope, faith and love”.


It should spur all Catholics “to return to the essentials of our faith and to recognise that the doors of the Church are open to all”.


Brett was born in Belfast into “a liberal Presbyterian family” and recalls “a very happy childhood” during which his parents “instilled strong family values”.


His father, Brian, who died in 2010 owned a box-making factory and was one of the last persons in the North to contract polio, in 1959 the year Brett was born, and the first to survive on an iron lung which saved his life.



“Despite his physical suffering he was an incredible optimist who influenced me greatly and had a simple faith which deepened over the years.”


Brett’s mother (81) is the well-known singer June Miller known as “Belfast’s other Ruby Murray”.


Brett went to Methodist College excelling at rugby as a winger on the first team and on the track, running the 100 metres in 10.9 seconds, a record which survived for 35 years until this year.


Rugby, he says, became “a way of life” and he rarely went to church in those early carefree student years. In 1978 during a golden era in Welsh rugby when they won four successive Triple Crowns he enrolled at Cardiff University to play rugby – studying law seemed almost an afterthought. 


But one day in 1980, in his final year when he was just 21, everything changed. Playing at senior level for the Abertillery club against a Bridgend team that included the legendary JPR Williams, his friend and team mate Terry Morgan broke his neck in a catastrophic accident. His four limbs were paralysed and he died from pneumonia two years later.



For Brett it was a shattering experience with profound consequences: “This was a turning point in my life. I had invested so much in rugby but now saw the fragility of life and began to ask questions about its purpose.”


On graduation he returned home, qualified as a barrister a year later in 1982 and continued to play his beloved rugby, now for the Collegians club.


Although his “links with religion” were still “pretty tenuous” he was thinking deeply about the big things in life.  So he was receptive when in 1982 a rugby friend invited him to “a loose [Christian] fellowship tenuously related to the Christian churches” and to join “something analogous to a modern Alpha course”.


These were the years of ecumenical Charismatic Renewal and at the first meeting in Gilnahirk Presbyterian Hall Brett met Aine, a young Catholic doctor, for the first time.


“We were a group of twenty somethings thrilled by the palpable excitement of renewal and what God was doing in our lives.”


He recalls this as a particularly fruitful period in his life forming solid friendships that have endured and being especially influenced by “that Presbyterian giant” the late Rev Pat Lowry who was instrumental in founding the ecumenical Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship in the Ormeau area of Belfast.


Brett had lucrative prospects at the Bar but three years into it, in 1985 he found God tugging him in a totally different direction. Despite being “very keen on Aine” he dropped everything and joined an ecumenical celibate brotherhood The Servants of the Word and began a three year novitiate in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “They were at the heart of charismatic renewal and I was attracted to their vision of practical ecumenism, a bit like Taizé.”



During his time in America he became attracted to the writings and example of Blessed John Henry Newman who has had a profound influence on his life. He notes similarities between his conversion and Newman’s and a reproduction of a famous Newman portrait hangs in his study.


Brett did not take final vows discerning he didn’t have a “missionary vocation” overseas and that God was calling him back home. When he returned Aine was almost engaged to another man but he is eternally grateful that they were engaged within three months, married a year later in 1992 and had started a family within another year.


By the time of his marriage “Newman infused my thinking” and although remaining a Presbyterian for another ten years, including a final year as an elder, he “already felt a Catholic  In pectore (in the heart) coming to believe what the Catholic Church taught, particularly on the Eucharist, many years before I became a Catholic on Holy Thursday 2002”.


Six months earlier he visited Rome for the first time to attend the ordination of an American friend and “felt like I was coming home to the ancient Church”. When he received the Eucharist for the first time he felt “great relief” at being publicly able to express what he had long believed.



Brett Lockhart still feels enriched by his Presbyterian heritage and speaks with gratitude of his friendship with “great Presbyterian saints” like Ray Davey, David Lapsley and John Dunlop.


But he has no doubt he made the right decision to become a Catholic. Talking to him at length it seems it was the only decision that would ultimately bring him peace.


Notwithstanding his “great love” for Benedict he believes Pope Francis and his emphasis on “mercy, humility and simplicity” has come “at the right time” for the Church after the trauma and humiliation of the abuse scandals. He is particularly pleased to see Francis going out of his way to embrace the marginalised and says this must happen here also.


Brett looks forward to the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in Down and Connor and to the possibility of being able to serve as a Deacon after an appropriate period of discernment while perhaps still working part-time at the Bar. His earlier novitiate will stand to him.


Above all Brett Lockhart never ceases to be in wonder of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and ever mindful of the hard message behind Jesus’ own words: “Truly, I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”(John 6:53)