Christina White on the agonising decision facing the bishops of England and Wales Two OF England's seminaries are likely to close in a radical shake up of the structure for priestly formation in England and Wales.
At an extraordinary general meeting in London on Monday the Commission on Seminaries, Set up last year by the bishops of England and Wales, recommended that two regional seminaries, one in the North and one in the South of England, should be established.
Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool and Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham will bring together those responsible for formation in the colleges at Oscott and Ushaw.
Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor and Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark will convene a similar meeting to discuss the future of St John's Seminary Wonersh and Allen Hall in Westminster Archdiocese.
Bishops' conference officials refused to be drawn this week on which colleges are likely to close and insist that future discussions will focus on a "merger" of existing facilities.
But the bishops' 21-page report — The Pastoral Care of Vocations — appears to support Oscott College and St John's Seminary, Wonersh.
Oscott is hailed for "its distinctive ethos that strengthens its missionary vision", its "felicitous location in the Midlands" and "its financial stability".
Wonersh students have a "strong sense of brotherhood" and the staff were praised for "modelling priesthood".
In a noticeably upbeat statement, Archbishop Nichols said: "I look forward to the discussions that lie ahead. In the work of the formation of future priests Oscott College has many strengths.
"With creative thinking these can be made more widely available. There is much to look forward to."
The Commission's proposals reflect growing concern in the Church at the rapid decline in vocations allied with the escalating costs of running under-utilised seminaries.
The number of vocations last year was just 48, compared with 52 in 1999.
Two hundred and thirty students are presently in formation in English seminaries, which have a combined capacity for more than 500 students.
Mgr Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the bishops' conference, said the Church needed to find an appropriate way to train men for the priesthood in the 21st century.
The role of the laity, he said, was increasingly important.
`Within parishes the priest's role is becoming more and more defined with lay people working in the parish. We have complementary roles.
"The Church is changing and we need a system which will enable us to build on our strengths."
He denied that financial constraints were one of the motivating factors behind the rationalisation of the seminaries, Or that "integration" meant closure.
He said: "We are looking at the best way of estabhs,Wng a seminary community. It is taking a lot longer than we thought. The important thing is to get it right."
Also under discussion is the fate of the Venerable English College and The Beth College in Rome and the Spanish college, St Alban's, in Valladolid.
The Commission said it saw "a continuing and increasing value" in enabling men preparing for the priesthood to experience European Catholic culture in the course of formation.
But the role of the European colleges in that process is likely to alter.
At this stage, the Commission appears to be favouring the use of Valladolid for a pre-seminary year, with the Venerabile focused on initial formation for the priesthood, whilst at the same time developing its facilities for post-graduate studies.
The Beth's role is less certain. The commission said the college's contribution was valued, but "not regarded as integral to its proposals for priestly formation for England and Wales".
The Holy See will have to be consulted on all discussions over the future of the European colleges.
Mgr Summersgill said all the meetings would take place before the next bishops' conference meeting in November.