Both of them were certain: the man lying motionless on the ground was dead.
He’d taken several blows to the head; blows amplified in their savagery by the addition of brass knuckle dusters, wielded with ferocity by a young John Pridmore, who at 27 had already carved out a name for himself as an enforcer in London’s unforgiving East End.
But when his latest victim fell backwards, blood flowing everywhere, he and the gangland boss he’d been trying to impress knew enough not to stick around.
Driving back home, the full extent of the effect of the way he had been living – the “cars, cocaine and girls” – dawned on him. It was not that he was overcome with grief – it’s that he wasn’t.
“Truly I believed that he was dead; that I had killed him,” John told The Catholic Weekly in an extensive interview at Redfield College in Dural.
“And the thing that scared me the most [was the realisation that] I couldn’t care less.
“I just clinically thought, ‘Okay, I’ve killed him. What are the consequences? I’ve hit him with a knuckle duster so I’d do manslaughter. I’d get eight years, do four.’ It was all clinical.
“And then I heard this voice inside of me saying, ‘How can you kill someone who’s got children, and who’s got a wife, and you don’t care?’ And that’s what scared me, because I used to care.”
A week later he was sitting in front of the telly, contemplating suicide, when he was overcome by an all-encompassing dread.
“I hear people say: ‘When I see God I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.’ But there were no questions, there was no conversation. There was judgment. And I was petrified, not because I was sorry – I had no remorse – but I did not want to go to hell. So I cried out, ‘Give me another chance’, and immediately I knew I had to get out of this apartment. And as I walked out I said the first prayer I’ve ever said in my life. ‘Up till now all I’ve ever done has take from you God, but now I want to give’.”
And then, all of a sudden, he was filled by a feeling of immense love.
“I’d done every drug there was, but I had never felt that.”
The East London hard man was reduced, for the first time he could remember, to tears.
He thought that he might be going mad, so he visited his mother: someone who knew the kind of life he had fallen into and who had begun praying a novena for him, nine days prior.
His mother told him that she loved him and that she knew he had had an experience of God – and she suggested he visit the local priest.
It was the beginning of a long, and in many ways, much more interesting journey. (The full and unblemished story is contained in his book From Gangland to Promised Land.)
John was here in Sydney for World Youth Day in 2008, speaking to around 400,000 people at the final gathering; a gig that went from a scheduled 10 to 40 minutes when the follow-up act failed to produce the right passes.
It was the beginning of something huge: a wave of requests to speak, not only in relatively serene circles, but in some of the darkest, and most desperate of places. On his current visit he has been preaching at parish missions and speaking at public meetings around Australia for the past two months. He is in Australia until 7 August.
What’s life been like for you since World Youth Day (WYD) in Sydney?
That was a massive snowball in my ministry. I started getting invitations to speak from all over the world.
You know, travelling – there’s no glamour, “Another aeroplane …”
But I do enjoy meeting the people. I spoke in Liberia to ex-child soldiers. That was incredible, humbling actually – really humbling.
The priest wanted me to come in there to give them some hope because some of them had killed their own parents under (Charles) Taylor; to speak to them and to try and give them hope. Some of them, ten years later, were still traumatised.
What did you say to them?
I think it was telling them that they had to start understanding and seeing themselves through God’s eyes; of not looking at themselves through their own eyes.
I was asked to speak at a drugs community and a guy asked me: “John, how did you stop hating yourself?” And I said: “I stopped looking at myself through human eyes and I started looking at myself through divine eyes.”
Mum, for years, wouldn’t read the first half of my book. She liked the second half, when I was so good; but she wouldn’t read the first half, when I was so bad. I went back to England and I was speaking to my brother on the phone and he said: “Oh, by the way, Mum’s read the first half of the book.” And I thought: “Oh, my God.”
So I asked her: “What did you think?” and she started crying. And she said: “I thought my poor, wounded little boy,” and she didn’t see the monster I became.
All she saw was that I was so hurt and so angry. And I thought, that’s a slight reflection of how God sees us – without the judgment and the condemnation.
He knows every wound in my life that led me to make those terrible choices and those terrible sins. So even though he didn’t want me to sin, he knows why I’ve been so angry and why he brought me to that point. I didn’t understand, so I just condemned myself, whereas he saw the whole picture.
You share your story with a lot people who’ve had very hard lives. How do you find speaking to your average cradle Catholic? How do they react to your story?
I think my story gives hope to everyone. No matter how bad you’ve been, you can think “well, I wasn’t as bad as him” (laughs). So that’s one side. And I think everyone in their own eyes has been bad.
I think a lot of people don’t turn to God, not because they don’t need God but because they don’t think God could actually forgive them; that he could take them to His heart.
And also a lot of people want to live their own lifestyle, and they don’t want to be obedient and to do anything that they think is stopping them from being ‘free’. I saw the commandments in my own life as being something like chains.
It was as I broke them all that I realised that it was then that I became chained up. It wasn’t keeping the commandments that kept me chained, it was breaking them that led to the pain and the hurt.
So when I give my story I try to not preach. I try to give them the reality of who I was and who I am now. And it gives them the chance to choose.
Do they want the peace, the joy, the freedom, the wonder of having a person there who created everything, who is your personal friend? Or do they want the misery of living a life where there is no hope, no love, no grace. ’Cause to me, I think that living without God is a death sentence. Twenty-seven years without God; the only difference was I wasn’t buried.
Your conversion experience was obviously a powerful and visceral one, but what has your faith life been like since then? How have you ridden out the troughs?
I think Mother Teresa summed it up in her writing, that she hadn’t felt God for about 40 years.
Well, I can’t say that he’s gone that long with me but I’ve certainly had a lot of dry periods. But I think and know, through the prayer, that faith isn’t feelings. My faith isn’t how I feel.
My feelings took me everywhere – cocaine, a very promiscuous lifestyle. They took me to think money is the answer to everything. But faith is deep down and it’s knowing that God is with you every moment of every day. You don’t have to feel it; you know it’s there.
Some people ask me: ‘Do you see miracles?’ Well, I see miracles every day, but most people miss them. They’re not big explosions, they’re little tiny miracles where you see God maybe changing me into being more caring or more loving or more understanding; you know, losing my temper less. And I think if he can do this with me in 25 years imagine what he can do if I live another 25 years.
It is just such a road of grace. I sustain it through prayer, through going to Mass every day, through praying the Rosary every day and really realising that without God there is no life. My life is God.
I think a lot of people don’t have fulfilment in their life because they have never given God a chance to be first in their life. They always sort of bring him out of the cupboard when there’s some sort of crisis like a little puppy dog, and then when the crisis is over they stick him back in the cupboard and continue on with their lives and wonder why they are so miserable. I enjoy my life every day.
You know, I see a lot of tough kids and one kid said to me: “The last person who I thought would talk to me about Jesus is someone who looked like you”. I just think you have that explosion in the kids’ lives that they think this guy is someone who loves Jesus and he’s not afraid of it and he looks like a monster (laughs).
You’ve gone into prisons all over the world. There are people in our prisons who never receive visitors. Are Christians doing enough?
“When I was in prison, did you visit me?”
I just think if people are shown love, they immediately want more love. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, teenage boys who in society’s eyes are wild.
And after a very short space of time with us in the community (the St Patrick’s lay community he founded 14 years ago in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland), it’s completely changed their lives.
And we have boundaries and we have rules, but it’s completely changed their lives. If you treat people with dignity and with love and respect, it’s amazing what happens.
And I think the prison service, all over the world, hasn’t got a clue. It’s about containment, punishment – and I believe that if people commit crime they should be punished – but I believe you should use that time to really make them into better human beings and certainly better citizens.
I just really don’t understand why prison services don’t get really positive speakers in, why they don’t have programs to really see what gifts these prisoners have got and what gifts they can use, and have people come in and visit them and say, “We’re giving up our time ’cause we care about you”, rather than just caging them and forgetting about them and thinking: “They’re not our problem.”
I’m sure you’d be aware, that Australia also has its own problems with violent crime, particularly in Western Sydney.
It’s the same greed, the same selfishness; that sort of possession that takes us over, that’s everywhere.
I’ve got one person who writes to me. He’s in Parkhurst, a maximum security prison in the UK. He killed someone and he’s never getting out of there, but he found God and he wrote to me and said “I’m told I’m with the most vicious animals in the world but all I see is just poor wounded little children” and I think there is a sense there of how my mum saw me.
There’s a sense that with these guys the world has almost given up on them, but God hasn’t given up on them, like he didn’t give up on me.