Richard Shaw on the early stages of an inquiry which could change the way students study for the priesthood
A NEw commission founded to investigate seminary provision for England and Wales has begun its preliminary research.
The commission was set up by the bishops at their Low Week meeting in April. Its remit is to review the provision of seminary training for England and Wales and to submit recommendations to the bishops for the best possible seminary provision in the future.
The commission consists of Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, who is president, Bishop Kevin McDonald of Northampton, the former rector of Oscott, the Birmingham seminary, Bishop Arthur Roche the Westminster auxiliary for pastoral affairs, Mgr John Kennedy, the former rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, and Fr Bernard Longley, who is the commission's secretary.
The first stage in the commission's work will be to consult with the Vatican Congregation for Education in order to discuss and confirm plans for how the exact details of how the commission will work.
The commission then intends to make a series of visits to the four seminaries in England — Wonetsh in Guildford, Ushaw in Durham, Allen Hall, in London, and Oscott — and the three abroad — the Venerable English College in Rome, the Beth in Rome and Vallodolid in Spain.
Following these discussions with staff and students, the commission will draw up a report which will both assess the present situation and make suggestions for how it could be improved. An interim report will be submitted to the bishops in November and the full report will be produced for the bish
ops' meeting in Low Week next year.
The ground-work for the commission has already begun. Fr Bernard Longley, secretary of the commission, said he was in the process of writing to seminaries to request meetings with members of the commission.
He said: "The commission has been set up with an awareness of the circumstances of these changing times. The number of vocations has fluctuated over recent years. We have to gauge our current position."
Asked about how radical possible recommendations could be, Fr Longley replied: "The commission would want to be as comprehensive as possible in considering options, so that we can offer a number of feasible options.
"It is absolutely certain that the bishops want to approach the overall question of seminary provision, but we don't want to target any individual seminary."
He added: "It must be stressed that the bishops have asked the commission to make our recommendations to them, but the final decision about each seminary must be with its trustees."
The issue of vocations was the subject of a national conference at Oscott, last weekend.
About 25 people with experience in the sphere of vocations met to discuss how to establish the national office of vocations, which was approved by the bishops' conference last November. Those at the conference included Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, Fr Mark Crisp, the new rector of Oscott seminary, and Fr John Armitage, who chaired the meeting. The conference looked at six areas, which will provide the focus for the work of the new Office. These are: building a culture of vocation; promoting the call to the diocesan priesthood and the consecrated life; pastoral research into the signs of the times; promoting the link between vocation and evangelisation; supporting and encouraging the new ecclesial communities; and recognising the opportunities that arise in an authentic transmission of the Gospel.
At the same time, figures for vocations in the Jubilee year have been released.
A total of 171 people entered English and Welsh seminaries in 2000, which, whilst down on the 1999 figure of 195, was still an increase on the 1998 statistic of 152.
Fr Danson, secretary of the committee for ministerial formation of the bishops' conference, said: "Although we would want a larger figure, I'm always amazed there are any vocations. It marks a movement of grace, which is a mksele in itself."
He was also hopeful for the future. "We were invited to Rome in 1997 for a congress. The congress said that at every level of life people must be reminded of the wonder of vocations — through sermons, schools and discussions. The thought of the congress is still filtering through."
He added: "We have got to preach the Gospel, offering an alternative to the prevailing culture, a vision to inspire the mind and the heart" The statistics revealed that increasing numbers are coming to the priesthood having already followed another way of life.
Fr Danson said: "We are making it clear that age is not an impediment. Their experience is very welcome and helpful in their subsequent life as a priest."