The railway journey from Taunton in Somerset to Newton Abbot in Devon takes you through some of the most glorious countryside in England – especially the stretch along by the Exe estuary, past Powerham Castle and out towards the sea. And in September sunshine it is especially enchanting – and the more so for me on this particular September morning as I was heading for Buckfast Abbey, for a day of huge celebration, the launch of the new School of the Annunciation established there.
It was Our Lady’s Birthday, September 8th. The bells of the great abbey church rang out, a magnificent choir sang, trumpets sounded, and Cardinal George Pell concelebrated a sung Mass with a number of other bishops and a great concourse of priests, in vestments of white and gold. The church was packed – I was in a set of pews to the side of the main chancel, which had an unexpected advantage in that we received Holy Communion from the Cardinal, something special to remember.
The aim of the School is to train and equip people for the New Evangelisation – courses for catechists, for priests, for deacons, for leaders in parishes and in Catholic movements. It brings together some of the experts in this field, tackling Scripture, sacramental theology, moral theology, the Catechism, liturgy, and more.
Buckfast Abbey has a rich history, dating back more than a thousand years, and in its modern form was re-established in the late 19th century and is home to a community of Benedictine monks. It has becomes famous for its Buckfast wine! The Abbey draws thousands of tourists every year, who enjoy the glorious grounds, crowd into the great church to enjoy the peace and beauty of its prayerful atmosphere beneath its swooping arches, buy monastic produce, browse the bookshop, and often return for further visits because it is all so attractive and welcoming.
The courses that are run by the School of the Annunciation will also take place at a London venue – Ealing Abbey in West London – and will include studies leading to diplomas equipping people to lead major evangelistic efforts. Buckfast is an unusually attractive place at which to study, with its round of monastic prayer, its comfortable accommodation in the guest quarters, its excellent food, and the beauty of its Devon setting.
The launch of the new School began with Evening Prayer on the Sunday and then continued with Morning Prayer on Monday and a panel discussion at which Cardinal Pell was joined by academic staff, answering questions and explaining how the School would work. Already a large number of people have signed up for its first courses. Then followed the Mass and a celebration buffet lunch.
Bishop Mark O’Toole, bishop of Plymouth, was present and has given full support to this new initiative in his diocese. Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, and Mgr Keith Newton of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham also joined the celebrations. Priests came from across Britain, together with journalists and TV crew, academics, leaders of lay groups, and supporters from many Catholic groups. A new adventure has begun, following the call made by St John Paul II and echoed by Benedict XVI for a New Evangelisation of Europe. Consecrated to the care of Our Lady, and inspired by the saints and missionaries who evangelised Britain long ago, the School of the Annunciation rises to tackle the challenges ahead.