I’m off to Maryvale again this weekend.
Maryvale is the house on the outskirts of Birmingham where John Henry Newman lived for a time, when he first joined the Catholic Church. It is Old Oscott House and was owned by a recusant family, ie a family that never gave up the Catholic faith. It was Newman who gave the house its name of Maryvale. Today, it is a Catholic distance-learning college where students can earn a degree or do post-graduate studies, and which also trains parish catechists and runs courses in evangelisation and mission. Staff from Maryvale attended the recent Synod in Rome for the Year of Faith, and met Pope Benedict. Maryvale will be playing a significant role in the New Evangelisation.
In Newman’s day, Maryvale was out in the countryside – Newman and his companions walked over the fields to reach the city for Mass. Today, motorways swoop and curve around the city’s outskirts, and there are great shopping centres and networks of streets and housing. But when you enter through the gates of Old Oscott House, you do get a sense of history. There are wide lawns and some fine old trees and as you approach the house you pass a statue of Mary. Next door is a small Catholic primary school. The whole place has an old-fashioned feel.
But the place is busy on a typical weekend when students arrive. They come from all over Britain and from further afield.
Accomodation is available in the house, and meals are provided by the wonderful community of Brigettine sisters. Mass and the Daily Office and other devotions all take place in the old chapel, dating back to recusant times. Lectures and meals are in a modern wing built – in sympathetic style – on one side of the old house.
Lecturers come to Maryvale from Rome, from Oxford, from London and elsewhere. A typical weekend will begin with Mass on Friday evening, supper, a lecture, and Evening Prayer. Saturday morning starts early with Mass and Morning Prayer, breakfast, and then a morning of lectures, with a coffee-break. After lunch, there is some free time – during which there are opportunities to talk with a tutor. Tea, more lectures, supper, and Night Prayer follow, and then students and staff usually gather for some social time with wine and talk. On Sunday, Mass and breakfast are followed by more lecture and then a traditional Sunday lunch.
Maryvale has its own traditions. Hand-written notes by Newman giving the times of meals are in a glass case in the hall. On a board in the dining-hall you “tick” on a chart of you want an egg for breakfast. Photographs of recent graduation ceremonies line the walls of the corridor leading to the main lecture-hall: you can work out, from the spaces left along the wall, where your graduation group picture will hang.
The house is old: students who came to Maryvale when it was first established as a distance-learning college a few years back tell stories of worn carpets and uncomfortable beds and uncertain heating. Things are more comfortable now but the charm of an old building is still there: tilting staircases with a faintly Harry Potter/Hogwarts feel to them, doors that lead nowhere in particular, the sudden discovery of a beautiful portrait-lined room on an upper storey.
Britain is in desperate need of a new evangelisation: vast numbers of young people know little or nothing of Christ, cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer, would look blank if you asked them about the Ten Commandments, the Good Samaritan, the Wedding at Cana, or Calvary. We need catechists for our Catholic parishes, evangelists who will work with priests in what is now mission territory, people who are prepared to work on imaginative projects to bring the Faith to our towns and cities and suburbs. As our Government plans to introduce laws making a mockery of marriage, as pressure mounts to legalise euthanasia, as children suffer through family break-up and as babies continue to be routinely killed through abortion, the hope for the future lies in Christ. The old house at Maryvale is playing a new role in history as it trains men and women prepared to take on mission work in the 21st century.