The reminiscences of an ex-London gangster are not what you usually hear in church. With knuckledusters, machetes and drugs once part of his daily existence, John Pridmore has a gripping story to tell, and he is more than happy to share it. Thirty years on from his conversion to Catholicism in 1993, though, he is more concerned that people have their own transformative encounter with Christ.

When John goes on tour, he does more than simply talk. The parish missions he leads are events designed to open people to that powerful encounter. Over the years, he has seen incredible things happen. Some who had previously sworn off church forever have come back. People have found healing, both physically and spiritually. Young people have found hope.

One of his favourite ways to help people connect with Jesus is through a healing service with Eucharistic adoration. People are invited to reach out and touch the humeral veil the priest uses to carry the monstrance, calling to mind the scene in the gospels where the haemorrhaging woman reaches out to touch the cloak of Jesus and is healed (Luke 8:43–48).

‘A lot of people have never had that connection, that this is really Jesus in the Eucharist,’ John says. But when they touch the veil, ‘they really get it.’

He tells the story of a woman whose daughter died at age seven. She had been unable to step foot in a church since but was invited to this night of adoration by her sister. When she reached out to touch the veil, she heard her daughter’s voice clearly: ‘Mummy, why are you upset I’m in heaven?’ The mother knew her daughter’s happy voice, and that was what she heard. She told John all about it.

‘It’s not just about giving the testimony,’ John says. ‘It’s about actually connecting people with the person of Jesus. They come for the testimony, but it’s really about having a personal encounter with Jesus that changes their life. That’s what changed my life.’

From gangster to Christian

Today John Pridmore is a man totally at peace. Tucked away in a tranquil part of Ireland, John relies completely on divine providence for his livelihood. He hasn’t had a conventional job since his conversion and describes God as his only real employer. ‘He’s a good boss. His wages are lousy, but his pension plan is out of this world,’ he says with a chuckle.

When he’s not travelling and speaking, he prays for hours a day and takes a special pride in cultivating his garden. ‘Just because I was a gangster doesn’t mean I can’t garden.’

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John Pridmore in conversation.

But his life wasn’t always so tranquil. He describes his childhood as one filled with anger, aggression and a deep longing to be loved.

Growing up in London, a child of divorce, John was abused by his stepmother. An aggressive home environment led him to start stealing, something that didn’t go over too well with his father, a policeman. This newfound criminal habit, which John describes as a ‘cry’ for love, resulted in two jail sentences: once at 15 and again at 19.

By 19 years old, John says there was so much anger in him that he was put into 23-hour solitary confinement.

After his release, with theft and brawling his only ‘qualifications’, he decided to make a living out of it. As a bouncer in London’s East End and West End nightclubs, he encountered members of one of London’s largest organised crime networks.

‘They walked into a club, and everyone’s eyes dropped, they were so connected and powerful,’ he recalls. ‘And I just wanted that power.’

It wasn’t long before John thought he had it all—money, a penthouse, sports cars, drugs, women—but all of it was a mask.

Looking back, he sees that after his parents’ divorce, he had unconsciously decided ‘that I’m not loving anymore, because if you love, you get crushed.’ He refused to open himself up to people. ‘I was so petrified of being rejected, not because I was strong but because I was weak.’

Everything came to a head when, at a club he part-owned, he punched somebody with knuckledusters and truly believed he’d killed them. Fortunately, he discovered later that he hadn’t.

I think the thing that scared me the most is, I didn’t care. As I drove home, I thought, how could I kill someone and not even care?

That night in his penthouse apartment, he says, ‘It was like a lorry parked on my chest. I knew I was dying then and there. I knew I was going to hell. And I cried out for another chance.’ At that very moment, the feeling lifted.

He hurried out of the apartment, uttering his first prayer. ‘Up till now, all I’ve done is take from you, God. Now I want to give.’

‘As I said that,’ John says, ‘the Holy Spirit, the love of God, just filled me. It must have lasted just a few seconds, but it was the most pure, wonderful thing I’d ever felt in my life. And I wanted more.’

He followed an inner prompting to go to Confession. It took more than an hour and the priest was in tears by the end. For his penance, his priest told him, ‘Say a rosary every day for the rest of your life.’ Three decades later, John has more than kept that promise: these days he says four.

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John Pridmore.

Knowing our spiritual artillery

Over the years, John has become more aware of the spiritual powers looking out for us. He doesn’t just have a strong relationship with Jesus and Mary; he makes good use of the saints too, having experienced firsthand their powerful intercession.

John shares that after his conversion, he went to see his mother—something he’d been out of the habit of doing. Overjoyed to see him, she revealed that she had recently started a novena, a nine-day prayer, to St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases. ‘It was on the ninth day of my mum’s novena that I had the incident in the flat where I really felt I was hearing God,’ he says.

For his Confirmation, John took the name Thomas, after St Thomas More. It might sound like a strange choice for an ex-gangster, but John explains, ‘He’s a lawyer. He’s a defender, isn’t he?’

Later, he discovered that as a boy of 10, despite going to a secular school, he had done drawings of St Thomas More, fully outfitted in his robes and chain of office. And after an incident that put him in hospital at age 16, he drew St Thomas More again in that hospital bed.

‘I realised that I didn’t choose him. He had been walking with me in all of my crap, and I didn’t know any of this when I picked him for my Confirmation.’

We don’t realise the ‘artillery’ we have working for us, John says. Mary, the saints, our guardian angels—they’re already there, praying for us, but they’re also waiting to be called on.

‘The saints are there to help us and direct us in so many ways. It isn’t enough to just read their lives … Get them working for you in everyday life,’ he encourages. ‘The saints are there to intercede for us and show how, even with a broken humanity, you can actually obtain sanctity here on earth.’

If John is struggling with something, like a particular vice, he finds a saint especially suited to that struggle. If someone needs a message, he asks for the angel Gabriel’s help. John believes we have so much help we’re not making use of.

His relationship with Mary is one that sustains him every day. After a life of anger and violence, Marian spirituality provided a much-needed ‘feminine touch’—as it does for all men, he thinks.

‘It isn’t enough to have an understanding that Jesus died for me. But it’s an understanding that Mary’s there to bring me to oceans of Jesus that I can’t get without her.’

Another underused part of our spiritual artillery are the contemplative, cloistered orders of the Church, John says, like the Carmelites.

In 2009, he visited a Carmelite monastery while touring in New Zealand and was asked by a nun why he had started travelling the world when previously he had mainly stayed in England and Ireland. He explained that since sharing his testimony at World Youth Day in 2008, invitations had come from all over the world for him to visit, and he’d accepted them in the belief it was God’s will. During that World Youth Day, somebody had prayed over him and was moved to say, ‘You will set the world ablaze with the Holy Spirit.’

When John shared this with the nun, she broke down crying. She explained that 25 years earlier, when she first joined the monastery, she felt God telling her to pray for someone: a person who, God specifically said, would ‘set the world ablaze with the Holy Spirit’.

‘I now know that person is you,’ she said. For seven years before his conversion, this Carmelite nun on the other side of the world had been praying for him.

Now, wherever John goes on tour, he finds the contemplative orders there and gets them praying for him. They too are his ‘artillery’.

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John Pridmore in conversation.

The call to heroic virtue

Since his conversion, John has done a lot of work with at-risk youth. Young people face so many challenges today, and one of the chief challenges, John believes, is ‘low self-worth’.

‘When I go into a school,’ he says, ‘I’m not going in there to take prisoners. I’m there to really bring them into the personal love of Christ, and to know that they have an opportunity to change the world we live in.’

What a lot of kids are desperate for, John says, is love: to know they are loved, despite their struggles or the labels they have come to embrace. Some people ask him, ‘Can God love me?’ His mission is to bring these kids a resounding and powerful yes. God does love them—infinitely and absolutely.

It’s also important to give young people something to live for, he says, and something they don’t have to apologise for. ‘They don’t [have to] apologise for God’s love and his truth and his mercy. I think kids respond to it and they love it. They’re looking for something virtuous to stand up for. I think everyone’s called to heroic virtue.’

For John, this mercy is experienced most powerfully in the sacrament of Reconciliation. It was there that he found real freedom and the grace to start anew, and he encourages everyone to make the most of it, laying everything down before Christ.

‘God’s mercy is bigger than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s bigger than anything we can ever do.’

As part of his ‘Gangland to Promised Land’ tour, John Pridmore will be appearing at the following three-night missions at parishes across Melbourne: