15 August 2022, The Tablet

‘You never quite know who’s going to walk through the door at the start of term’

‘You never quite know who’s going  to walk through the door at the start  of term’

The Freshers' fair at Cambridge University.
Jetekus/flickr | Creative Commons

CathSoc and other university chaplaincies offer regular Mass and more, and can play an important part in student life. As students prepare to head back to campuses around the UK, Patrick Hudson spoke to some university chaplains

Freshers’ fairs can be alarming places, filled with the costermonger cries of endlessly varying societies and tinged with some creeping self-doubt. Am I really a potential alpinist? Bellringer? Performance poet? Amid the maelstrom, even those who did not necessarily plan to prioritise the spiritual life as a student may be drawn to an uncomplicated CathSoc stall and a chaplain distributing Mass times. Faith can provide the first point of contact with the wider life of a university.

“Much of the job is simply to provide a place for people to be,” says Fr Dermot Morrin OP, chaplain to Edinburgh University; “Somewhere they will have their peers around them. With each cohort of students, you hope to build a community which can be the context in which young people flourish. It’s something that can transform their time at university.”

Chaplains tend to be modest types, insistent on their own light touch and their students’ central role. Nevertheless, some of the Church’s most influential figures of the twentieth century worked in chaplaincies – the likes of Ronald Knox, Michael Hollings, or Alfred Gilbey, each in his own distinct style. In recent months, many of the tributes to the late Bruce Kent came from his former charges when he was chaplain to the University of London.

University chaplaincy punches far above its hierarchical weight. The Tablet’s Fr Alban McCoy OFM Conv considers it one of the most important jobs in the business: “It’s a specialised ministry of enormous responsibility, but it’s something that bishops don’t always take seriously.” A chaplain to Cambridge University for 15 years, he describes it as equal parts taxing and rewarding, and those parts very large indeed. “There was never really time off. Christmas Day was the only day I could relax.”

Chaplaincies are as various as the universities they serve. Catholics were not admitted to universities in England until the foundation of institutions which did not require students to be members of the Church of England; Oxford, Cambridge and Durham maintained these confessional tests until their abolition by the University Tests Act in 1871.

Even so, the Church did not encourage Catholics to attend institutions – secular or Anglican – outside its control. Although the bishops failed in their ambition to establish a Catholic university in the late nineteenth century, the Church founded its own colleges (particularly for teacher training) in parallel with the many Victorian institutions we know as the “red bricks”. These are the forebears of today’s Catholic universities, such as Hope in Liverpool, Newman in Birmingham, and St Mary’s in London.

There has never been a uniform or consistent policy on chaplaincies, and there is none today. Most are administered by the local diocese, with parish priests often covering their local universities; many are the responsibility of a religious order; the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board (founded in 1895) appoints the chaplains to those two. Religious sisters and lay chaplains often form vital parts of chaplaincy teams. Yet for all the varieties of circumstance, there is something shared and intangible in the calling.

It is, perhaps, provided by the rhythms of the academic calendar. Fr Matthew Power SJ, senior chaplain at Oxford, says he is helped by the shape of the year, which integrates the demands of work and play and prayer. “We know when people have other priorities, and it helps us to understand their situation.” The chaplaincy is just one part of university life – alongside the mountaineering, bellringing, poetry – and must cater to a catholic assortment of Catholics. Fr Power recalls that much of his own spiritual development as a student took place outside the chaplaincy. “It’s wonderful that many students take on a role, but it’s not a problem if people only drop in occasionally. Remembering my own experience is a useful corrective if I ever wonder why somebody isn’t more involved.”

Fr Morrin makes the same point: that for some Catholic students it’s good to be heavily involved with chaplaincy life, but for others “just” turning up on a Sunday is the right thing. In both cases, the chaplaincy is doing its job. “There’s a balance to be struck,” says Fr Power, “between building an active community while also showing others that they can be a witness to their faith in other parts of life.” Part of the joy of the job is “to see different ways of being Catholic being modelled”.

This demands a certain equanimity on the part of a chaplain. “If they come, they come,” says Fr Morrin. “One of the amazing things is that they do come.” The turnover of students and the great variety of backgrounds means that the character of the chaplaincy changes year to year, and successes and failures will vary with the people.

“You never quite know who’s going to walk through the door at the start of term,” says Fr Power, reflecting on these personnel changes: music groups form, decline, and revive, talented cooks or dedicated servers leave apparently unfillable gaps – but somehow things resolve themselves. “We don’t respond in too panicky a way to a problem.”

Dwelling on difficulty rarely remedies it. Fr McCoy takes a practical attitude: that the chaplain’s greatest assets are a healthy liver and a good head, along with a capacity for impromptu mass catering. This can be a useful dose of reality for students inclined to excessive introspection themselves.

“The calling of a chaplain relates to a particular time of life,” says Fr Power, “hopefully a time of flourishing. We’re there to encourage and affirm that, which requires an element of patience and calm.”

That challenge, it seems, is also the best part of the job. “It’s a privileged perspective,” says Fr Morrin. “You see people grow, people who build up the Church.” Fr Power describes the experience as “a huge encouragement to one’s own faith”. Chaplains are dealing with the future of the Church – they are looking through the right end of the telescope.

At its best, it is priesthood as it ought to be. “The role is unique,” says Fr McCoy, “but unique because it draws on every aspect of the priestly vocation.”

Patrick Hudson is the Newman Intern at The Tablet.

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