With the dramatic fall in the number of men seeking ordination, Terry Philpot asks whether the Catholic Church should review its approach to training.
One of the student corridors in the Venerable English College in Rome has recently been closed and an ecclesiastical wag has hung a key outside with a notice that reads: "In case of vocations break glass!" It's no joke. The plummeting number of men wanting to enter the Catholic priesthood earlier this year prompted the bishops of England and Wales to set up a four-man commission to review the future of the four English and three continental seminaries.
The fall in vocations is one sign of the state in which the Catholic Church finds itself at the start of its second millennium. There are 222 ordinands, 156 in the English seminaries and 66 abroad. But while mass attendance by the 4 million Catholics left in England and Wales has fallen, the numbers attending are equal to all other Christian denominations combined.
That there is a crisis in vocations, however, is not in doubt and this can be witnessed at St Cuthbert's College, Ushaw, a college of the University of Durham. Its massive buildings dominate the moor on which it stands, a short distance from the city. They were originally built to house 400 ordinands. Today there are 40. But Ushaw does more than train priests. It offers a home to a regional office of Cafod, the church's overseas aid agency, the Marian Studies Centre (moved from Southampton University in 1997) and is used as a conference centre.
Moreover, St Cuthbert's educational position was boosted in the 1970s when Upholland seminary was closed and Ushaw became the seminary of the church's northern diocese.
The commission's report caused immediate controversy with its emphatic recommendation that the English seminaries - Allen Hall in London, St John's seminary in Wonersh, Surrey, St Cuthbert's and St Mary's in Oscott, Staffordshire - be combined to create two seminaries, one for the South and one for the North, by next September. The three overseas seminaries would specialise: the Venerable offering pre-ordination postgraduate studies; the Beda, also in Rome, continuing as an international "house of formation" for English-speaking Commonwealth students; and St Alban's in Valladolid, Spain, concentrating on pre-seminary formation. A continued continental presence also allows students to savour European philosophy on its own ground and immersion in the wider church.
The English colleges all have strong academic affiliations: Ushaw has its Durham link; Oscott has associations with Louvain, in Belgium, and Birmingham (the latter has established the country's largest theology faculty); Allen Hall has connections with Heythrop College, a part of London University; while Wonersh's degrees are validated by the University of Surrey. Ushaw also offers an ecumenical theology and ministry degree that attracts Anglican and Methodist ordinands. Lay people attend its courses, as they do those at Wonersh, which also has a masters course on identity and difference and plays a part in the university's Surrey Forum on Ethics.
The other two places where priests receive ordination training are Blackfriars Hall in Oxford and the Missionary Institute at Mill Hill, London. But these cater specifically for members of religious orders and those intending to be missionaries. They are not within the control of the bishops but of their respective orders and their future is not in doubt.
There are strong emotional attachments to the seminaries, not least among the bishops. Each seminary has a history and long-established traditions. The bishops have said that they would make their decision at their meeting at Oscott College from November 12-15, but there is no certainty that this will happen. Indeed, there appears to be some prospect that they may shy away from making a painful decision and leave things as they are. Any regional group of bishops could go it alone and run its own seminary, but it is doubtful that this would be practicable or financially possible. The Scottish bishops have grasped the nettle - there are now no seminaries north of the border and their ordinands are trained in the Scots Colleges in Rome and Salamanca. In Ireland, only the famous Maynooth seminary remains open.
While the number of vocations falls, the kind of man now coming forward for the priesthood is different from in the past when boys could move from school to seminary. Today he is more likely to be in his 30s or 40s, and, apart from not having married, will have led an ordinary life with a job in the "real world". Canon Kevin Haggerty, rector of Wonersh, is a former army officer with degrees in politics and history, and war studies, who has also worked in housing. Following him into the seminary are bus drivers, doctors and chemists.
Campion House in Osterley, west London, is where men without academic qualifications go for what the commission calls "academic priming" before entering the seminary. But its future is also uncertain because it is now very rare for men without the A levels required for seminary admission - or even a degree - to want to become priests. Most priests emerge from seminaries with a degree or a qualification, but the primary aim of ordination training is not to send the new priest off with a rolled scroll.
Moreover, the argument about the future of the seminaries is not only about where buildings will be located. What is taught to produce today's and tomorrow's priest is as important as where the teaching takes place. London parish priest Father Shaun Middleton, press officer for the National Association of Priests, which favours radical surgery on the four seminaries, says that these two aspects - physical environment and teaching - are intrinsically linked. Things should not stay as they are, he says. "It is not the best way of spending money put in the plate."
There are four aspects of a priest's formation - spiritual, academic, human and pastoral. One argument against the seminaries in their current state is that they offer a dated, overly enclosed way of training priests. It is a quasi-monastic arrangement, based on traditions stretching back centuries, suited to a different age and a different church.
While the bishops' commission seems to think that the reach of seminary programmes is too wide, drawing in non-Catholic ordinands and laypeople, those running the institutions respond that this is part of a more outward-looking church.
A radical suggestion, which Father Middleton among others suggests, is that priests should live in the community in smaller houses but that academic staff should be transferred to universities or other places to which priests would go for their academic training.
There are also plenty of other places, both secular and church-run, that teach courses such as theology or philosophy that could contribute to ordination training. Heythrop College is just one of them. The Beda's mature students, who enjoy a four-year course, are taught at the Gregorian or the Angelicum universities in Rome. The bishops, however, have criticised the Beda's "uneven approach to academic studies".
Perhaps, too, would-be priests could be encouraged to continue in their secular jobs and move slowly into training. Another suggestion - although one barely on the horizon - is that there should be one national seminary as part of a Catholic university. But the commission has already considered and rejected, on practical grounds, the argument for creating a national seminary.
At the first Westminster Synod in 1852, two years after the Catholic episcopate was restored, Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most influential British Catholic and convert, preached his sermon on "The Second Spring" at Oscott College.
"The past never returns," he said. "It is never good. If we are to escape existing ills, it must be about going forward. The past is out of date. The past is dead." As the bishops return this month to Oscott some 150 years later, they may reflect on those words as they ponder the education of their future priests.