Men training for the priesthood in England and Wales are to be formed through online teaching, spiritual direction and prayer groups during the coronavirus pandemic, The Tablet can reveal, as seminaries shut down to protect students and staff.
Students have been sent home from St Mary’s College, Oscott, in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, which forms the highest number of men for the priesthood in England and Wales.
But the acting Rector, Fr Paul Keane, told The Tablet that formation will continue.
“We have our own on-line learning management platform, which allows lecturers to teach ‘live’ and the seminarians to interact with them and each other,” he said.
“If this is not possible, the lecture is recorded and uploaded. On-going academic assessment work remains in place, so that reading and writing continue. Each seminarian has a spiritual director, formation tutor, and human formator. Their work with the men continues, ideally through video conferencing, but at least by phone. There are other opportunities, such as on-line prayer circles, allowing the men to pray together.
“There was a real sadness at having to close, though the men realised it was the right thing to do. Therefore, I think they appreciate what is still happening because it allows for some on-going formation and gives sense of both purpose and community. And, of course, like every Catholic in the country, they are having to learn to pray the Mass via a webcam. What will be important for each one of them is to go deep into all of these experiences and reflect upon them, so that they may discover where Christ was in it and what he would have us learn,” he said.
Seminarians from the Venerable English College in Rome have also been sent home due to the Coronavirus. On 23 March the college, the oldest English institution outside of the UK, announced they had been closed for a fortnight with only “the Rector, Vice-Rector and Academic Tutor remaining”.
“We students continue our studies from homes and parishes using online resources,” the college’s Facebook page explained.
Meanwhile, Rome’s Pontifical Beda College continues to function. The college runs its own formation programme and explained all external lectures are being offered online. On Thursday 26 March, the college said that “visitors from the Vatican gave us advice and support to help keep us safe. They were pleased with how we are self-isolating & made some helpful suggestions. While College life continues we keep in prayer the people of Italy and the world.”
The Beda is the second seminary in Rome run by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and prepares mature men for the priesthood.
In Oxford the Catholic Chaplaincy is locked down with 3 chaplains and 6 student residents. “We are building community in various ways, including Pilates! And we are livestreaming Mass each day. The students are admirably industrious and very vigilant about sanitising in the library. It is a very different experience,” Fr Nick King SJ told The Tablet.
As the country entered the second week of lockdown, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales urged the Government to protect vulnerable communities. The Lead Bishop for prisons, Richard Moth, called for prisoners to be released where it was safe to do so.
‘The tens of thousands of women and men in our overcrowded prisons are at particular risk from this pandemic. They are no less deserving of safety and healthcare than anyone else in our society,” he said. He said it was important to facilitate access to phone calls for those who remained in prison now that physical visits have been suspended.
Bishop Paul Mason, the bishop for healthcare, praised healthcare workers and hospital chaplains, and said he was glad to see an emphasis placed on peoples’ mental wellbeing during the pandemic.
Bishop John Sherrington, Lead Bishop for life issues, said he was shocked by news that the government is considering plans to introduce temporary measures to allow early abortions at home without any medical supervision present to keep women away from hospitals during the pandemic. Bishop Sherrington said the move, which would allow women to take abortion pills at home instead of at a clinic following a telephone or online consultation with a doctor, diminished “the seriousness with which these decisions should be taken.”
Also this week the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, reminded Catholics that they are dispensed from their Easter duty to receive Communion this year, but urged them to make an Act of Perfect Contrition in place of a visit to Confession.