The seminary community went on a visit recently to the Carmelite sisters in Ware. We had some extra time this year and used it to drive up the A10 to St Edmund’s College. This was the site of the seminary before we moved to central London in 1975.
Learning about the history of the college reminded me that some of the most significant projects of renewal within the Church have taken place in times of difficulty, and that they have sprung up precisely in response to these difficulties.
When Catholics were being persecuted in the 1560s in England, William Allen decided that rather than putting his head in the sand and just hoping that things would improve, it was time to do something creative to preserve and build up the life of the Church. His dream was to have a centre of learning that would nourish the religious and intellectual life of Catholic laity and future priests.
Instead of complaining that this wouldn’t be possible on English soil, he used some lateral thinking and founded a college in a place where it would be possible: Douai, in northern France.
It’s remarkable to see the Douai Diaries on display in the museum at St Edmund’s. You can read Allen’s own handwritten accounts of those first years at the College. Volume One was open at the first page, with the year 1568 inscribed in the margin. Who could have known, at that early stage, that it would prove to be such a source of renewal for the Church – the education of the laity, and the building up of the priesthood for mission at home. And that five hundred years later two seminaries (Ushaw outside Durham, and Allen Hall in London) would still be continuing the tradition it started.
All of this because the Church refused to be disheartened by the difficulties it faced, and decided to do something bold and creative.
What kind of boldness and creativity do we need today?