By David Alton
Faced with a fall in English vocations to the priesthood a debate is underway about the future of our seminaries. The conduct of the debate and its outcome will reveal a good deal about how the Church will look in the future. The choice will be between short-term managerialism, which will opt for closures or retrenchment, and the vision and confidence of men like Cardinal Allen who planned for the future.
Two years ago when Salford’s Bishop Terence Braine kicked off his ‘Faith In The Future’ renewal programme he was faced with an identical dilemma. A great deal can be learnt from the way he has tackled it.
At the outset Bishop Braine made it clear that he had no hit list of buildings to close. He asked every parishioner to consider two questions: What is the purpose of the Church and what tools does it need to do its work. Not a bad starting point for those examining the future of the seminaries.
First the diocese was called to prayer. Everyone was given a prayer card to keep with them. Every parish was then asked to appoint two lay representatives to attend consultations with their priest. The parish representatives also co-ordinated the distribution and collection of questionnaires – from which there were 20,000 responses.
Power point presentations, a diocesan web site, a personal letter from the bishop to every child in secondary education, and an audit of spiritual and material assets in every parish prepared the way for long term decisions that can be owned by those they will affect. Decisions can be made in the deaneries on the basis of knowledge and trust.
Of the 20,000 people who returned the Salford questionnaires, 90% said evangelisation and mission should be the priority. Second, although, for example, in our Manchester deanery they will soon be without a priest for every parish, the audit revealed that several hundred lay people are involved in some form of ministry. This is a huge success story, not a crisis. They are now considering ways of pooling their resources and how best to harness their lay people in supporting their priests.
If anything, our seminaries need to be expanded to provide fuller formation for lay ministers, for married deacons and for the development of lay movements. All of this will, in turn, help promote more priestly vocations. Worldwide vocations are up and our seminaries can surely play a bigger part in training overseas seminarians keen to learn the English tongue.
Some wonderful work goes on in our seminaries. The Beda College, for instance, with its emphasis on mature vocations (boasting among its current seminarians widowers, grandparents, fathers, a former headteacher, a prison governor and a doctor) commands admiration and support. Before rushing into any short-term managerial fixes consider how assets like these, created and cherished for generations, can easily be lost. And if we opt for the quick fix rather than the vision of our forebears, will the Catholics of the future thank us?