The young men giving up careers, relationships and houses to become priests
Bernadette Kehoe visits Oscott to talk to the seminarians and find out about their vocations
“I’ve got a deep excitement at what lies ahead. I know this is the fulfilment of who I am; I can’t wait to embrace this new identity.” In a few months from now, Matthew Roche-Saunders will be ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Swansea. It will be the culmination of six years of formation, which followed his three years at Exeter University, studying psychology.
Matthew relishes the opportunity to meet and answer my questions. Most of his old schoolfriends aren’t Catholic. He says they find his choice of career “fascinating, curious or confusing”. As he’s watched his university friends find their feet after graduating – and move into careers and spread across the world – he reflects on having spent the last six years living in the same building, St Mary’s College, Oscott, in a Birmingham suburb: “When I entered here as a young man I thought God was asking me to be a priest; now God is making me into a priest. I’m trying to come to terms with that.” Joking that he wish he’d listened more in lectures, he adds: “There’s always a sense of inadequacy: why me, how me?”
We meet in the common room at Oscott, with its sofas, pool table and, at the end, a statue of Our Lady. The daily routine: early morning silent meditation, followed by morning prayer then lectures, Mass before lunch and, in the afternoon, pastoral work and study. There are regular meetings of the “house groups” which bring together seminarians of different ages. Sunday nights are the “community” night, when a particular year group will organise an activity. Free time involves football, going to the gym, cinema, mini golf or eating out. Obedience to the rules of the community is expected.
So how did the idea of priesthood take root? Matthew remembers, at the age of seven, hearing a priest talking about being “called” and feeling that the word had a resonance for him. He also thinks back to an “explosion” of faith while attending a Youth 2000 worship event. A seed had been planted which stayed with him throughout his time at university.
Alongside Matthew sits another seminarian, Sean Gough. Now in his fourth year, Sean is not, he says, from a particularly religious family. “I always took more interest,” he says, “being thoughtful about things and always conscientious.” Initially interested in medicine, he went to university to study biomedical science. “It didn’t go well,” he admits ruefully, “and this made me re-evaluate my life. Within a year I knew I had to pursue a vocation; if you are curious but unsure, then becoming a seminarian is the best way of finding out if it’s a mistake or not!”
At lunch, the large refectory is packed. The Oscotian Society is holding a get-together. Membership is open to everyone who has been through Oscott, including men who left before ordination. One of its aims is to “celebrate the Catholic seminary which has been a huge influence on our lives”. Much laughter fills the room. Then, suddenly, the rector draws proceedings to a close and after a short grace is said the assembled throng files silently along a corridor to the spectacular Pugin-designed chapel. We all sink to our knees and recite the college prayer: “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, we pray for an increase of vocations to the priesthood …”
Father David Oakley is an Oscott veteran. He studied there in the seventies, taught there in the nineties and has been rector for five years. “I would say those times mark three different eras,” he observes. He recalls the days when young boys were packed off to junior seminary and put on a trajectory that wasn’t carved out of mature discernment. In his generation, he says, seminarians came from a deeply rooted Catholic school and parish background. That can’t always be said of men today. “Their average age is 33. They have had jobs and an independent lifestyle – and may have made choices that are not necessarily compatible with church teaching.”
Fr Oakley points out that today many of those drawn to the priesthood have been influenced by intense experiences, such as a Youth 2000 weekend prayer festival, or through involvement in one of the new movements in the Church, such as the Neocatechumenate. Some do not come from Catholic backgrounds; some are baptised Catholics who lapsed and later recovered their faith as young adults. So is it the case, I ask Fr Oakley, as is often suggested, that young seminarians these days are more traditionalist? That’s a caricature, he tells me. “The charismatic movement is a bigger influence than the Latin Mass Society.”
By the nineties, he says, the language of “formation” had begun to take root in discussions about the training of young men for the priesthood. “The modern man is coming to seminary. What needs has he got?” At Oscott, individual and group work cover topics including healthy living, nutrition, exercise, living in community, coping with different settings (e.g. presbytery, parish, school) and, of course, the challenges of celibacy.
In the digital era, the appropriate use of social media must also be addressed. Acknowledging this is an additional modern pressure, Fr Oakley resigns himself to the fact that the students have their phones with them at all times. On the occasional days of silence, seminarians have to switch off their smartphones. Many, he says, find this “really difficult”.
Oscott is one of three Catholic seminaries in England; the others are St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, near Guildford, and Allen Hall in Chelsea. The rector of Allen Hall, Canon Roger Taylor, a former barrister turned opera company manager, also believes that personal development, with an emphasis on pastoral work from day one, is essential. “Very few who come here haven’t been to university and work,” he says. “They’ve been ‘around the block’, which is not unhelpful. Lots of the men are giving up careers, relationships, properties. They come here after a lot of thought and prayer, and with a sense of bereavement about what they’re leaving behind.”
He says that Allen Hall has few “dropouts” because of the “seriousness” with which they come in. But he also recalls one student who left. “We went to his wedding,” he says, smiling. “It was great! We want people to be happy, not to trap them in a life that’s not for them.”
A former Oscott student who left last autumn, Henry Earle, looks back on his time there as very positive. “The main reason I went to seminary was out of a desire to serve God in the best way I could,” he says. “I thought that that was through becoming a priest, but I realised I could serve God outside of priesthood.” In the six months since he has left, Henry has done a pilgrimage walk, become a Eucharistic minister in his parish, and is helping his diocese develop its website. “It was incredible to be alone with God and to study. I wouldn’t take it back, ever.”
Others who have left seminary behind are less positive about the experience. One, who did not wish to be named, told me he had pursued a vocation because of the “inspiration of various priests” and a deep conviction that it was a job that needed to be done and that he ought to offer himself. Despite struggling with the pain of not being able to have a family of his own, he didn’t want to “cry off”.
Ultimately, though, he became unconvinced that celibacy was a “higher vocation” than marriage. He felt he was surrounded by seminarians who had no interest in being married, and who, unlike him, were not “giving up anything”.
A significant problem is that newly ordained priests often find life difficult, and disillusionment leads some to drop out. Fr Oakley argues that the solution lies in robust formation. But he also warns of “serious dysfunctionality” among some newly ordained priests. “My plea to bishops and vocation directors is to select candidates very carefully and to select them over a couple of years.”
Emerging from seminary and confronting pastoral realities often involves newly ordained priests advising parishioners on issues they have not had to grapple with personally. Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, called for compassionate accompaniment, acknowledging that “ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families.”
Matthew Roche-Saunders describes Francis’ approach as challenging “in the best sense of the word”. He recognises there is inevitably a tension. “I want to be faithful to the Church but also to the person in front of me,” he says. “I will be helping real people trying to live the Gospel. Our lives are about being witnesses of the Gospel. People will be attracted to that – to something beyond us.”