Father John Paul Leonard, a priest of the Diocese of Middlesbrough currently on the Staff of the Venerable English College, writes about Seminary life.
It is said to be a truism that you arrive at seminary at the time you are meant to arrive. You then progress to ordination, or discern that your vocation lies elsewhere, in the company of the staff and students God has picked for you to share your seminary life. I think the same may be said of a person’s return to seminary. So please allow me to make some observations about seminary life second time around for me, as I carry out my appointment as Pastoral Tutor. I would want to preface my comments by saying that seminaries at all times have had good and holy students and staff, and I would want to avoid stereotyping seminaries past or present, and I would encourage you to do the same as you read the article.
Let me begin with the good news. It appears the after perhaps two decades of declining numbers of vocations to the priesthood in England and Wales, we are now experiencing a definite increase in number. The last two years have provided double digit entry numbers of new students and we hope for the same this year.
What do I notice about the new seminarians? Dare I say I think they seem more normal than previous generations? The longer selection process within the Diocese, now normally involving a Vocations Director and his team, plus the Bishop and his advisors, more attention to the psychological profile of the candidate, and also for some a propedeutic year in Valladolid, Spain, has made the path to seminary a bit more winding and filtering. Strangely I think we have the likes of Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins et al to thank for a cohort of students who have already followed with interest the philosophical and theological issues of our time. The continued presence of students who were either Anglican lay men or Ministers also grounds ecumenical discussions on at a level of firsthand experience.
The students have often had their vocation nourished by attendance at World Youth Day, Youth 2000 or Faith Conferences, flourishing University Chaplaincies and friendship with a holy and kindly priest, whose contentment with his life has made them take at the very least a detour from the career paths of law, teaching, journalism, accountancy, etc. This is perhaps the biggest change; the students have a positive attitude to seminary life. I think this is the “get up and go” or the “will do” generation. They have a positive view of Pope Benedict XVI, and identify with his beautifully written and coherent writings and homilies. They appreciate his restoration of things beautiful in the Church; they recognise his desire for beauty in liturgy, vestments, architecture, but also his gentle yet strong defence of Catholic teaching and the rights to practice our faith in an increasingly secular society. Their memories of John Paul II are not so vivid, as these increasingly young students were often in their early teens or younger at the height of his papacy.
I think this generation if I may label them are “restorers”. I think this is much better than “conservative” because they are a sharp thinking group, they have the world at their fingertips with the internet, and consider deeply the requirements for priesthood in the third millennium. They, therefore, place emphasis on a solid prayer life, not only in quantity but also quality, often enhanced by beautiful singing and musical settings. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is central to their spiritual life, and also a preference for silence when on retreat. Students organise their own daily Holy Hours, and we recently completed a revived seven basilica pilgrimage with a new organised and devotional twist. I have really enjoyed the new emphasis due to apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo vobis on human development alongside, spiritual, academic, and pastoral formation of priests. As a College we have enjoyed some of the finest speakers helping the students to develop all aspects of their personality into their priesthood.
Another feature of this time is a more unified vision of Church and priesthood shared between staff and students. This I think makes for a happier College, as staff and students regularly share communal events such as sports, theatre, days out, birthday celebrations, etc. Not in a myopic or blinkered way, quite the contrary, these students are sharp, but also have a deep conviction that Jesus Christ and his Church is indeed “the way, the truth and the life” and very much want to take their rightful role in fulfilling their vocation as priests or laymen in the new evangelisation so necessary at the start of this Century.