A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Teacher who Inspired Me


By Phil McCarthy

Fr Tony Skillen SM

In physics, as in religious studies, Fr Tony Skillen SM encouraged his pupils to keep asking questions

“I will help you understand the structure and meaning of the universe. Everything the others will try to teach you at this school is just stamp collecting.” I was in my first week at St Mary’s Grammar School, Sidcup. Fr Tony Skillen’s words made a deep impression on me, and from then on I always looked forward keenly to his classes. 

Tony Skillen had read natural sciences at Christ's College, Cambridge, before completing his philosophy and theology studies. After ordination as a Marist priest in 1967 his first appointment was to St Mary's, where he taught physics. His style was well suited to the new Nuffield inquiry-based curriculum, which sought understanding rather than rote learning. Such was his success that by the time I entered the sixth form in 1975, more than half the year chose to study physics at A-level. One contemporary told me: “I learned more about scientific methods during A-level classes with Fr Skillen than in three years studying physics at university. I picked up how to think logically and to figure things out from first principles.” 

Fr Tony took the same approach in religious studies. He challenged us to ask questions, to move beyond our primary school formulations, and to debate freely. Nothing shocked him or disturbed his equanimity or dented his wicked sense of humour. I had dismissed religion at the age of 10 after a friend had told me: “You know all this God stuff? It’s just rubbish; they tell it to us to try to make us behave.” Fr Tony’s lessons made me see that faith could be rational and attractive. Apart from teaching the ‘structure and meaning of the universe’, he coached our year’s rugby team with skill and enthusiasm. 

In 1976 he was appointed deputy head of Marist College, Hull. He then became a chaplain at the University of London, where his kindly but challenging attitude made him ideal for the role. He died in 2008, after suffering from diabetes for many years. At the age of 11 I had not realised that Fr Tony was echoing Ernest Rutherford’s famous dictum that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”. I went on to study medicine, where I was disappointed to find that the curriculum was mostly “stamp collecting”. More than 50 years after I first met Tony Skillen, I enrolled on the London Jesuit Centre's Science and Theology course. Fr Tony had inspired me to keep asking questions.

Phil McCarthy is a former chief executive officer of Caritas Social Action Network.

Reprinted with permission The Tablet 15 October 2022 

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