The number of young men training for the priesthood in Britain is rising – slowly, and not dramatically, but still definitely rising. There are now over 200 young men studying in the various seminaries – the highest number since 1994. There will be 35 ordinations this year, and just over that number in 2013.
Some of the men are trained in Britain – there are seminaries in London (Allen Hall), Southwark (St John’s at Wonersh near Guildford in Surrey) and Oscott (Birmingham). Others go to the English College in Rome.
Father Stephen Langridge is Director of Vocations for the diocese of Southwark. He is one of the prime movers in a special event which has now been running for some while – InVocation, a gathering in June at Oscott where young people come together to pray, hear talks, meet priests and members of different religious orders, and celebrate the Faith. They bring tents and camp out in the grounds of the seminary, crowd into the magnificent chapel for Mass, and take part in events such as a candlelit Blessed Sacrament procession culminating in outdoor Benediction on Saturday evening.
There are also other projects throughout the year to bring the idea of priesthood and religious life to the forefront of the minds of young Catholics. Children at primary schools in the diocese of Southwark took part in a big vocation project this term. Each school was urged to invite a priest or a nun to come in and talk, and the children could ask questions and find out about their lives. The resulting essays poured in to the Southwark Vocations office. Prizes were awarded for the best, and Fr Stephen went to the schools to present them. The prizes were books – including Blessed John Paul the Great (St Paul’s publishing), a biography written specially for children by the author of this Blog.
The Westminster diocesan seminary at Allen Hall in Chelsea stands on what was once St Thomas More’s garden, near the Thames. A mulberry tree in the grounds is said to date back to his time: tradition has it that the family used to gather beneath the tree to relax and talk in its shade. Today, visitors to the seminary are shown the tree and say prayers there. Groups of visitors from different parishes visit the seminary on various Saturdays during the year, are given a guided tour and join the seminarians for a Holy Hour, Evening Prayer, and Benediction, praying specifically for more vocations to the priesthood. Allen Hall is proud of its connections with the hero priests of former days who were trained abroad and served the Catholic community at a time when it was considered treason to do so – the names of several of these martyrs are inscribed in the Honour Boards in the refectory.
There are great challenges for any young man who intends to serve as a Catholic priest in modern Britain: the collapse of marriage and family life, the crudity and vulgarity of much of the common culture, ignorance of spiritual things among most of the population. But the young men of the John Paul II/Benedict XVI generation are responding to God’s call, and will serve the Church of the 21st century in a country which badly needs the message that only the Church can bring.