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.