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Thank you, BBC, for a sympathetic portrayal of our faith

Last night’s ‘Catholics’ was a worthwhile and sensitive portrayal of seminary life, devoid of sensationalism

By on Friday, 24 February 2012

Seminarians from Allen Hall, who featured in the documentary

Seminarians from Allen Hall, who featured in the documentary

Given the validity of the regular criticisms against the BBC – that it invariably shows a Left-wing, secularist bias and so on – I was agreeably surprised to find none of this displayed in BBC4’s hour-long programme last night. Simply called “Catholics”, it followed the seminary formation of a group of young men at Allen Hall, the London “house of formation” as it was described during the film. As such, it did provide a brief glimpse of what is involved in training to become a priest: viewers saw a first year Latin class, a lesson in singing the liturgy, practise in preaching a wedding homily etc. The young man involved in this last exercise was told, not unkindly, to alter the tone of his voice: when he referred to the Gospel, it “still sounded like bad news”.

What was conveyed, implicitly rather than explicitly, behind the voices of these ordinary young men and their priest mentors and guides, was that the Gospel is still good news; quite a feat for the BBC to manage this. Any temptation to sensationalism was strictly rejected. The question of recent clerical sex abuse scandals was only mentioned in passing; the rule of celibacy was talked about soberly in a class in which the priest leading the discussion made it clear that in his day the rule had been imposed from outside; there was no question of seminarians learning to embrace it for themselves. The overall impression gained from the hour was that seminary training today prepares young men better for the modern world than the old model.

All the seminarians interviewed seemed balanced and down-to-earth, taking God seriously and realistic about their own shortcomings; pedestals were out. One, who had been a lapsed Catholic, a roadie with a band, who had had several girlfriends (including a flirtation with a married woman) and whose bookshelves included a boxed set of “The Sweenie”, described his past life with touching honesty: “Something deep within me told me it wasn’t right… you can’t live like this.”

All the students reflected on how their call to this vocation had come about: some in boyhood or youth, others at a later stage. Fr Roger Taylor, the vice-rector, outlined his own past career; a convert, he had read law at Oxford, had practised as a barrister and then, having a passion for music, had run several opera companies. His “Damascus moment”, as he self-consciously described it, came about when he happened to enter a Catholic church where adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place: he saw hundreds of candles flickering in the dark and as many people quietly praying. He had sensed a real Presence.

The programme adopted an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall technique, with the commentator’s voice in the background; Jeremy Paxman it was not. At Mass practice, a fifth-year candidate said that the Mass “means everything.” This made the sight of a new young priest, celebrating Mass after ordination in Westminster Cathedral, moving and indeed awesome; a Catholic viewer, if not the programme-makers, could feel again through him the uniquely extraordinary gift of the Mass.

Yesterday, too, the Holy Father met “his priests” during a visit to the diocese of Rome. He told them: “We are not anonymous beings without meaning in the world. We have a calling. A voice has called me and I have followed. During our lifetime we should consider it, trying to go deeper and deeper in the way of the call.” Despite Allen Hall being only one of only three seminaries left in this country, I finished watching the programme with a sense of hope in the seriousness and maturity of its candidates for the priesthood. As one of the priest staff members told the viewers: “We are given the grace to live this life… we are not just doing it ourselves.” The only interruption to my concentration came when the slightly dappy companion who happened to be watching the programme with me asked me with a straight face, “Is the training for women priests the same as for the men?”

Thank you to the BBC. Although the programme could only offer the shortest of introductions to seminary life, it was sympathetic, not sensational, and worthwhile.

  • Jane

    Im not sure if you know, the article didn’t mention it, but this was just the first episode “Priests” of a three-part series. The next one, “Children”, will follow a group of children preparing for their First Holy Communion. It should be a good series if the first episode is anything to go by!

  • Honeybadger

    Indeed, BIG THANKS to the BBC for this programme!

    I have three additional words to add: About. Flaming. Time!

  • theroadmaster

    Yeah, this programme seems to have been a very pleasant break surprise, from  a broadcasting corporation which has commissioned documentaries in very recent memory, whose content was either unambiguously hostile or condescending to religious believers and their Faith.  There were straws in media wind before this.  The series of programs like “The Monastery”(2005), which were dedicated to the the effects of the monastic and conventual lifestyles on selected members of the public on retreat, were positive in their treatment of the religious hosts.   There was an element of “Reality TV” in these broadcasts but there was no intent to belittle or mock the motivations of those who decided to leave all and take up the call of Jesus Christ.  Let us hope that this latest programme marks an  important step in relation to an overdue respect being given to the life-enhancing beliefs of people of Faith  by TV broadcasters and programme -commissioners.

  • maryp

    Thank you Francis for this wonderful account and well done the Beeb!

  • Noel

    I was very impressed with the BBCs effort in compiling this programme.  However, I did spot their obligitory “poke” at us.  They ensured they focused on the use of Latin when, for the majority of us in the Church for the past half century, Latin is something only used on special occasions.  Someday the BBC reasearchers will stop popping into cathedrals, convents and monasteries, and just focus on a basic parish.  Then they will see that the Catholic Church doesn’t go around chanting Latin every hour of every day.  If they only knew some of the lovely English music settings we have to various prayers and psalms.

  • Steaphenbrian0306

    An excellent programme, that left the viewer free to make their own conclusions.

  • Anonymous

    It was a resonable portrayal. Amazing for the BBC. It won t last of course. The BBC has anti-Catholicism in its very bones.

  • Anonymous

    Latin is very much in the ascendant, in the formation of Priests at least. As it should be, at last, for the “Lain Rite”, that we are.

  • Louise

     Showing the use of Latin isn’t a poke.  Latin has pride of place in the Church, and we should be proud to see it feature prominently.  Also, as Teigitur points out, Latin is in the ascendant (Thanks to God)!.

  • http://twitter.com/sitsio Mark Lambert

    Personally, I didn’t feel that the programme set out to give a positive portrayal of our great faith. The sometimes strange questions asked and the quirky music seemed to me to be saying ‘look at this funny, out of date cult’. They were at pains to describe Allen Hall as a strange, innocuous building. I don’t recall any mention of the fact that it was St.Thomas More’s house, the amazing library, or even the mulberry tree under which St. Thomas used to sit.

    They also seemed to be saying that we are dying, noting that only “19 men were ordained last year”, whenever last year was (they were using the old translation, so the documentary was obviously dated a bit). They didn’t say that there’s been an increase in vocations, more men at Allen Hall this year than for ten years!
    If you juxtapose it against something inspirational like Robert Barron’s epic “Catholicism” series, it looks very peculiar. When you think the Catholic Church has provided the bedrock for the UK’s whole structure & civilisation, this documentary was, well, weird. Like it was filmed by people with no idea of the socio-political context of the faith.That said, there were positives. The Seminarians were an inspiration and spoke beautifully and passionately, putting over JP II’s definition of a priest as “A man for others” convincingly on at least two occasions, once in the context of ordination and once in the context of celibacy. One of them also did a fabulous job explaining the majesty & beauty of the Mass. However, the success of the programme was almost in contradiction to the programme makers intention, in my personal opinion!

  • Guest

    Francis (or anyone), Out of interest, can you explain how they might’ve been “Left wing” in their approach to the seminary (by implying religion is the opium of the people? : ) )

  • Guest

    Francis (or anyone), Out of interest, can you explain how they might’ve been “Left wing” in their approach to the seminary (by implying religion is the opium of the people? : ) )

  • Eli

    Re: Music mentioned by Mark Lambert – could anyone identify this please? I thought it lovely music.

  • daclamat

    The latest broadcast terrified me. Children being brain-washed: Good morning God. A  parish priest straight out of AA Milne. If that’s seriousness and maturity…….If Benedict is right with his “a voice has called me” we must conclude that the voice isn’t doing much calling these days. The rock is still there, the gates of hell won’t prevail, but the geriatrics who are in power and have lost credibility are taking a long time getting the message.  I’m 75 – young for a popew these days.  I had the good sense to retire 10 years ago.  I’ve been growing more infallible by the day.

  • daclamat

    Latim was marvellous when it was the lingua franca (Hm) Many years ago, a seminarian, I was lost in a tiny Spanish fishing village (Marbella), where no one spoke a word of English. Fortunately a figure in a soutane hove into view, and with my impeccable latin I asked him the way. After almost a life time spent in southern Africa, I learned to ask the way in Swahili, Setswana, Tchokwe, not to mention Spanish, Portugese and French. Latin far from being in the ascendant, aas sunk without trace. So why does Rome in its infinite wisdom force us to babble a dead language to worship! Because I knew and loved Latin I understood the beauty of liturgy I felt instinctively that people should be able to worship in their own tongue. Why does a fistful of obscurantist elitists insist on denying them?

  • daclamat

    When my son was eight, I gave him Asterix in Latin, Greek, and English – his mother tongue is French. Would you go on reading the Catholic Herald if it were in Latin?

  • Anonymous

    Force us??!!. I wish. We never hear a word of Latin where I live, let alone the Mass of the ages.

  • John

    I agree with Eli – the piano music captivated me too – there was nothing ‘quirky’ about it – I would love to know what it was.

  • Heatherrobinson

    Every one of us Catholics should be SCREAMING about the Saudi Grand Mufti of Riyadh calling for churches to be destroyed!  We should be asking him, how would he feel if the Pope called for all mosques to be destroyed?  We should remind the Mufti that it is interesting that there are thousands and thousands of Moslems fleeing to Christian countries.  How many thousands of Christians are fleeing to Islamic countries??   Surely it’s time he got the message!  It is time the Moslems UPDATED the Koran, and added to it the Golden Rule!

    Have you read through it?