Those responsible for training priests at the English College in Rome are stuck in a Seventies time-warp, says Bess Twiston Davies It is a blustery winter's day, and we are sipping coffee in a small cafe by the Vatican. "The problem with some of my colleagues," says a member of the Secretariat for State, "is that they're so afraid of returning to the Fifties that they're stuck in the Seventies."
Just across the River Tiber, is the Venerable English College, the elite seminary for English and Welsh priests founded in 1579. Many young priests who trained there recently would bitterly agree with their curial colleague.
They are survivors of a tense and difficult battle between seminary staff imbued with radical concepts of "Church", and younger, more conservative student priests. They say they felt utterly alienated from the Sixties theology of their seminary professors. It is a syndrome neatly described as "flower-power versus the Ratzinger Generation".
"There was a general fear amongst staff," claims a priest who left the English College last year, "that their 'seventies-style view of the way things should be done wasn't working out. Conservatism was a dirty word because they were absolutely determined that no priest should be allowed through to ordination who would roll back the spirit of Vatican II'."
At the last National Conference of Priests (generally seen as having more attraction for liberal priests than for their more mainstream brethren), concerns were even raised over "alarming signs of conservatism" among new applicants for the priesthood.
Seminarians today are certainly a different breed to their Sixties-trained counterparts. They join up later, in their late 20s or early 30s, as opposed to straight after school. Most have more expe
rience than older priests did at this stage, socially, romantically, professionally.
All of the intake for Archdiocese of Westminster last September, for instance, had left professional jobs for the priesthood. A proportion sacrificed high-paid City careers in banking or law. Few tolerate "wishy-washy" liturgy or doctrine, as summarised by the hackneyed phrase "the spirit of Vatican II". Many believe that distortions of Council documents have produced an ignorant generation of modern Catholics, educated without a satisfactory explanation or liturgical experience of the faith.
"The men coming forward for the priesthood now don't see a priest as just "a good bloke, who happens to dress up for Mass on a Sunday. These people in charge of us were trained in the era of flower-power and the Church has moved on, but they haven't," a priest ordained 18 months ago tells me.
Like every "Roman" (as English College priests are known) I spoke to, he asked me to suppress his name. Each was ordained recently, each told the same story: they survived the English College by "concealing" beliefs and practices likely to be labelled "conservative" by their superiors.
"Survival was almost Darwinian, because the liberal staff were complete control freaks. Over-piety in someone very early on in the seminary would be a source of concern. You had to create two personas. A public and a private one," explains a Midlands-based priest.
"The seminary was run by people who believed they'd produced the perfect revolution but it failed. There are limited fruits from their perception of what Vatican II was about. "There is a whole generation of priests like myself coming up to ordination who, as far as staff are concerned, are reactionaries."
Mgr Adrian Toffolo, was rector of the English college during the period all of the priests interviewed were in training. He remembers "a fair cross-section of the Church in England and Wales, being represented amongst students during his tenure.
"A certain minority had fairly conservative views, but the vast majority of our lads were reasonable, sensible and middle-of-the road."
However, a former assistant of Mgr Toffolo's admitted privately that "a wave of conservatives" left last sununer.
Unfortunate seminarians perceived as "conservatives" by staff claim they "were marked men" under constant observation. "Questions would be asked about us and concerns raised at staff meetings".
My sources cited instances of "conservatism" — like loyalty to Church teaching on sexual morality. an interest in Latin or Church history, and excessive admiration of the Pope; they claim criticism of him was tolerated, though never of the English bishops.
Mgr Toffolo insists: "It would be untrue to say that the official line of the college went against the Church's teaching on any moral issue."
On the liturgy and Latin, he adds: "You have to be realistic about what you are training people for. We are training priests to work in a pastoral situation in England and Wales. Whether a particular student likes it or not, the need or requirement for Latin liturgy is very small in the Church in England and Wales though it was used in certain chants."
Were students who wanted Latin liturgies told they were divisive? "They might well have been, though I don't recall telling anyone that," says Mgr Toffalo. "What individual staff members may have said to individuals I do not know hut I personally tried to encourage everybody wherever they started from."
He admits, however: "We would have been discouraging to people who were not willing to be open to learn or didn't think they had anything to learn. People at the extremes such as extreme conservatives tend to think they had nothing to learn and that had to be counteracted."
My interviewees allege that "counteractive" measures included expulsion. They say euphemisms like "this candidate lacks human maturity" were used to justify the expulsion of exemplary seminarians.
Mgr TotTalo said he did not recall any seminarians during his tenure being expelled "for being considered conservative".
But a priest expelled from Rome nervously remembers : "You felt you were being watched and judged and that you could be thrown out at any time. Plenty of things were technically not forbidden at the college but it was considered a black mark against you if you did them too often.
"For example, you could go to a Latin Mass but not too often. A number of things were very dangerous — it was like walking a tight-rope."
Clerical dress, de rigeur for seminarians attending papal functions was a particular bugbear that, according to reports in The Daily Telegraph, continues to exasperate English College staff.
'There were huge unnecessary discussions in the college about clerical dress and attending papal events in the Vatican because staff were so frightened of students `dressing up'. But we were in the Diocese of Rome which is utterly clear on these matters that clerical dress is there as a public witness, 'a sign of contradiction', not to elevate an individual's status. In a diocese, you obey the rules," says a young priest.
Mgr Toffolo points out that "at the end of the day priesthood is not about clerical dress. We have to guard against someone who puts on clerical dress to show that they have got through, that they are all right. Liking clerical dress can be making a statement, Our Lord doesn't want outward show. As Our Lord said to the Sadducees, what's important is not how long your tassels are but the quality of the life you lead."
Seminarians are not encouraged to wear dog-collars until they are ordained deacon. "You have first to be the right sort of person, then you can put on the dress," explains Mgr Toffolo.
He defines the right sort of person "as someone whose heart is in the right place, who is trying to put the real precepts of the Gospel, like charity and justice into place".
A frequent complaint from Old Romans is that, far from being encouraged to develop Romanitas, an attachment to Rome, their superiors refused them permission to attend papal events which "clashed" with the college calendar.
Mgr Toffolo admits: "I suppose we did in college be
reasonably strict about letting people go here, there and everywhere, otherwise how will they settle in a parish? The problem with a place like Rome is you'd end up with people never being in college, and what the place is there for to train people for the pastoral priesthood in England."
When "papal events" didn't clash with English College activities, or were "of particular significance to the English College Community," Mgr Toffolo says that students could attend. He recalls that in the Jubilee year, for example, "three or four events, of particular relevance to community at the English College were picked out, by staff, but normally speaking one got on with life in the college".
Mgr Toffolo explains that seminary training has evolved and expanded in the past 40 years. "Since Vatican H the areas which have been more specifically developed are the pastoral training — trying to give people experience and develop their skills pastorally and human formation."
Mgr Toffolo says staff "work very hard, to achieve a balance between the academic, spiritual, pastoral and human goals of formation." He refers to a document called Fire to the Earth in which staff and some students outlined the goals of seminary training.
But a priest from Mgr Toffolo's time has a different recollection: "You'd be hardpushed looking through our notes from our spiritual conferences to find anything about the concept of living a sacramental life.
"It was all psycho-babble, constantly the emphasis was on doing rather than praying. The first aim of training should have been to help seminarians conform themselves to Christ."
Training, I was told, focussed almost exclusively on developing "pastoral" quail ties, the ability to mix with parishioners. "If you're. iadhE' up parish councils and parish
dances, the ide4 seems to be that you're automatically a good priest, but the fact that you may have falling Mass attendance
and that Catholics are neglecting confession doesn't "seem to be as important".
Mgr Toffolo says priests "shouldn't be tucked away in a sacristy. He needs an active spiritual life but he wants to put his faith into practice. He wants to work with young people, and he wants to set up education councils".
"We don't want people becoming priests because they want to dress up and say the liturgy — although of course saying the liturgy is an element of it — but because they have a genuine concern to mix with the people of God. If you don't want both an active and a prayerful element that is an indication that your vocation is somewhere else."
Mgr Toffolo's former students protest that that holiness should come first.
"We weren't given much help in developing personal asceticism. The emphasis was always on 'community life', which is fine for a religious order, but not really helpful for life as a diocesan priest."
Is this all just "academic" at a time when the Church is still blighted by priest shortages? Dissatisfied Romans say the most worrying aspect of the English College culture was that students who played football, strummed guitars and generally fitted "laddish" stereotypes of "a good pastoral candidate" passed muster without undue scrutiny.
"The spotlight was off if you were a lad and didn't challenge the assumptions of the staff," said one priest.
One man was named by all as the perfect example. Joe Jordan, the paedophile priest from the Archdiocese of Cardiff, jailed for abusing minors last November.
"Joe Jordan was weird, really weird. We all knew he had a problem — though none of us knew what. The only people who didn't realise were the staff— and that's because they were too busy persecuting us."