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It was a very special weekend for the Diocese of Lancaster. On Saturday morning John Millar, one of our Allen Hall seminarians, was ordained deacon in the Cathedral Church of St Peter in Lancaster, on the diocesan feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. And the following day Sr Margaret Atkins made her final profession as an Augustinian sister in the community at Boarbank Hall.

There are many different reasons why the Lord calls people to diaconal/priestly ministry and to religious life, and the different forms of consecration take on different meanings for the individual, and for the Church and the world – often changing over time. But one of the meanings (not at all exclusive to Orders or to consecrated life) is to give a particular form of example to the Christian community and to the world.

This is phrased beautifully in the Prayer of Consecration at the Diaconal Ordination:

May he excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life. May his conduct exemplify your commandments and lead your people to imitate his purity of life. May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience. May he in this life imitate your Son, who came not to be served but to serve, and one day reign with him in heaven.

Many congratulations to Deacon John and Sister Margaret. May their example and prayers inspire many others to serve Christ as his ordained ministers and consecrated religious.

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The BBC were at Allen Hall recently, not with a film crew, but to take some still photographs for a slideshow about seminary life on their website. You can take a look here.

A view from the garden - one of our photos, not from the BBC

If you have dipped into this blog now and then, and wondered what Allen Hall looks like on the inside, the slideshow is certainly worth looking at. There are some stunning photographs. It’s amazing how a decent camera and a photographer with a good eye can make the most ordinary corner seem interesting or alluring. And it’s equally amazing how many seminarians were engrossed in their studies in the library when the photographer happened to be coming by…

There are also three interviews strung together to make a short commentary over the slides. The Rector of Allen Hall Mgr Mark O’Toole, first year seminarian Damian Ryan and fifth year seminarian Martin Plunkett talk about the challenges of becoming a priest today.

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I can’t quite believe it, but somehow the number of seminarians in formation at Allen Hall has reached fifty at the beginning of this new academic year. This includes those living at Allen Hall, together with members of religious orders and other houses of formation who are travelling in each day, and seminarians and deacons who are outside the college on full-time pastoral placements.

It’s certainly a significant step, to reach our half-century; and another sign that even if priestly and religious vocations are not quite booming, things are at least looking more positive than a few years ago and moving in a good direction.

The numbers don't match, because this photo includes some seminarians in formation elsewhere, and is missing some of the Allen Hall seminarians!

You can read my enthusiastic post from this time last year, which includes a few more global stats.

And here is the recent press-release from Westminster Diocese:

16 men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London.

The new intake brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 50, up from 46 in 2010 and the sixth consecutive annual increase.

This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in the Diocese of Westminster, other English and overseas diocese including Lancaster, Nottingham, Johannesburg  and Toulon and religious orders including the Salvatorians, Passionists and the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

For the Diocese of Westminster, 32 men are now preparing for the priesthood. 12 men started this September with six studying at Allen Hall, three at the Beda College in Rome and three at the Venerable English College in Rome. A further two men are spending a year ‘discovering priesthood’ at The Royal College of St. Alban, Valladolid, Spain before actually entering seminary.

Damian Ryan is one of the Diocese of Westminster’s new seminarians. He shares some thoughts as he begins this new chapter in his life.

Can you say a little about your journey so far?

After leaving school at 17, I worked as a salesman, a market research supervisor, a chef, and a swimming and football coach. It was then that I realised that I was ready for further studies so at the tender age of 26 I went to study Psychology and Sports studies at the University of Hertfordshire, with the idea of going into sports coaching. God, however, had other ideas!

Looking back, how has God guided you to the seminary?

I felt restless at university about my chosen career path as a sports coach. At the same time I began to want to go to Mass every day, and to learn more about my faith. It was around this time that many people started asking me if I was thinking about priesthood. I thought it was a conspiracy! After talking with my parish priest and chaplain at the university, Fr Mark Vickers, he encouraged me to ‘come and see’ whether or not God was calling me to the priesthood. He kindly offered me a position as parish assistant at St Peter’s Church, Hatfield, to test this. My spiritual director was also fantastic in guiding me with deep wisdom during this period of discernment. As well as receiving encouragement from parishioners at St Peter’s, this journey towards the priesthood has given me an ever-deeper sense of peace which, to me, has been the biggest sign that this is indeed the right step.

How are you feeling as you begin your seminary journey?

Very excited! When I first made the decision to apply to seminary 18 months ago, I wanted to move in straight away! I had to be patient though as God obviously wanted me to wait, and so since then I have continued working in St. Peter’s Church, visiting the sick and housebound, serving at Mass every day, helping with the Chaplaincy, helping and leading catechesis classes, helping to run a youth group, as well as other general parish duties. During this time I’ve come to know the parishioners there, who have been overwhelmingly kind and encouraging, and so, as D-Day approaches, the sense of excitement is tinged with a sadness that I’ll be leaving such a generous, warm, and kind community. But most deeply, as I begin this journey, God willing, towards the priesthood, I feel as if I finally know who I am and who I was made to be. I feel as if the priesthood will complete me in a way that nothing else will.

What advice would you have for anyone else discerning a possible call to the priesthood?

Do not be afraid! Pray, live the Christian life, and frequent the sacraments. If you are a student, going to Mass sometimes during the week is both doable and very good to do. Praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament has helped me enormously, as well as having a good spiritual director. Getting to know good priests, other good Catholics at events such as the ‘Evangelium’ and ‘Faith’ conferences, where you can meet many others who are discerning a possible call to priesthood as well as learning more about our faith, are very good things to do too. The main thing is to be courageous, relax, and to let Jesus do the work. He knows what he’s doing.

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Many Catholics think that the main step on the road towards priesthood is the decision to go to seminary. There is some truth in this: You think, you pray, you discern; you put in your application. If you are accepted, you take the plunge, and that involves leaving a job, moving home, starting a completely new life, and the challenge of telling friends and family that this is really happening.

Allen Hall Seminary - Front Door

But sometime around the middle of your seminary formation you take the formal step of becoming a ‘candidate’ for ordination. On Saturday evening here at Allen Hall four men celebrated their own candidacy. What’s it all about? How can you become a candidate for ordination when you are already a committed seminarian three or four years down the road to priesthood?

Here are one or two passages from the Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI which set it all up.

Since entrance into the clerical state is deferred until diaconate, there no longer exists the rite of first tonsure, by which a layman used to become a cleric. But a new rite is introduced, by which one who aspires to the diaconate or priesthood publicly manifests his will to offer himself to God and the Church, so that he may exercise a sacred order. The Church, accepting this offering, selects and calls him to prepare himself to receive a sacred order, and in this way he is properly numbered among candidates for the diaconate or priesthood […]

1. (a) A rite of admission for candidates to the diaconate and to the priesthood is introduced. In order that this admission be properly made, the free petition of the aspirant made out and signed in his own hand, is required, as well as the written acceptance of the competent ecclesiastical superior, by which the selection by the church is brought about. Professed members of clerical congregations who seek the priesthood are not bound to this rite.

(b) The competent superior for this acceptance is the ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes of perfection, the major superior). Those can be accepted who give signs of an authentic vocation and, endowed with good moral qualities and free from mental and physical defects, wish to dedicate their lives to the service of the Church for the glory of God and the good of souls. It is necessary that those who aspire to the transitional diaconate will have completed at least their twentieth year and have begun their course of theological studies.

(c) In virtue of the acceptance the candidate must care for his vocation in a special way and foster it. He also acquires the right to the necessary spiritual assistance by which he can develop his vocation and submit unconditionally to the will of God.

You can see what a special moment this is for each of the candidates, and for the Church. It’s not just a formality or an external recognition that they have ‘put the hours in’. It’s a way of offering oneself to God and to the Church, freely and publicly, and having the Church accept that offering. It’s a new commitment, not just to enter more wholeheartedly into the process of discernment, but to actively foster the priestly vocation. There is a psychological and spiritual shift. From this moment onwards, the assumption is that this man has been called by the Lord to priesthood, and in fact the ceremony itself acts as a public call by the Church.

Candidacy would have the same significance, more or less, as a couple getting engaged. They move from wondering and questioning to committing and planning. It doesn’t mean the wedding or ordination is inevitable, and it’s important that each person still feels completely free – but you’d need a major rethink to call it off.

It was a great evening for everyone involved!

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It was very moving to be in Westminster Cathedral yesterday morning at the very moment when the Anglican Ordinariate was formally established in England and Wales, and to discover its proper name: the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman. There are only so many historic moments you can claim to have witnessed in the space of a few months; but this, along with Pope Benedict’s visit to Westminster in September, was definitely one of them: the first time ever that Anglicans in this country have been able, as a group, to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church without having to renounce anything of fundamental importance from their Anglican heritage.

Our Lady of Walsingham

 

Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton were ordained to the Catholic priesthood; and Keith Newton was nominated as the first Ordinary.

Their ordination to the diaconate took place two days before at our own chapel here in Allen Hall. If you’ve never seen the chapel you can see a clip of the ordination rite here – a shot from the balcony as the three candidates prostrate themselves in the centre aisle during the litany of the saints. The huge silver crucifix that sits above the altar on the sanctuary wall was originally placed on the outside wall of the chapel, facing the street, as a powerful witness to the thousands of people passing down Beaufort Street every day – especially those on the top deck of the buses who would have had a great view. It was moved into the chapel when the sanctuary was simplified and the hanging baldacchino removed a few years ago.

Here is the text from Cardinal Levada that was read out at the beginning of the Mass yesterday:

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Ordination to the Priesthood of our three friends, Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton, is an occasion of great joy both for them and for the wider Church. I had very much wished to be present with you in Westminster Cathedral today in order to demonstrate my own personal support for them as they make this important step. Unfortunately, however, a long standing commitment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to meet with the Bishops and theologians of India in Bangalore has meant that I am unable to be in London today. I am very happy, therefore, to have the opportunity of sending this message and am grateful to Archbishop Nichols for agreeing to represent me and for his willingness to deliver my best wishes.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has today published a Decree erecting the first Personal Ordinariate for groups of Anglican faithful and their pastors wishing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. This new Ordinariate, established within the territory of England and Wales, will be known as the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and will be placed under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman. Its establishment, which marks a unique and historic moment in the life of the Catholic Community in this country, is the first fruit of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, issued by Pope Benedict XVI on 4 November 2009. It is my fervent hope that, by enabling what the Holy Father calls “a mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies”, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will bring great blessings not only on those directly involved in it, but upon the whole Church.

Also today the Holy Father has nominated Reverend Keith Newton as the first Ordinary of this Personal Ordinanate. Together with Reverend Burnham and Reverend Broadhurst, Keith Newton will oversee the catechetical preparation of the first groups of Anglicans in England and Wales who will be received into the Catholic Church together with their pastors at Easter, and will accompany the clergy preparing for ordination to the Catholic priesthood around Pentecost. I urge you all to assist the new Ordinary in the unique mission which has been entrusted to him not only with your prayers but also with every practical support.

In conclusion, I offer my personal and heartfelt best wishes to these three Catholic priests. I pray that God will abundantly bless them, and also those other clergy and faithful who are preparing to join them in full communion with the Catholic Church. In the midst of the uncertainty that every period of transition inevitably brings I wish to assure you all of our admiration for you, and of our prayerful solidarity.

At an audience granted to me by Pope Benedict XVI on 14 January 2011, His Holiness asked me to convey to you that he cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing upon the ordinandi Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton, together with their wives and family members and upon all other participants in this solemn rite.

Entrusting you confidently to the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, and to the intercession of the great saints and martyrs of England and Wales, I am

Yours sincerely in Christ,

William Cardinal Levada

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

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Some of our seminarians at a recent ordination

We are now two weeks into the new academic year at the seminary. Westminster Diocese has just put out a press release about the rise in priestly vocations at Allen Hall over the last few years: 

Eleven men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2010–2011 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London. The new intake of eleven new seminarians brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 46. This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in Westminster diocese and other English and overseas dioceses, including Lancaster, Nottingham and Helsinki, as well as religious orders, including the Salvatorians, Passionists and Norbertines. 

There are now 33 men preparing for the priesthood for the Diocese of Westminster. Eight men started this September with three studying at Allen Hall, three at Vallodolid, Spain, one at the Beda College in Rome and one at the Venerable English College in Rome. 

The statistics for the last few years for Allen Hall are given in a footnote (I’ve added this year’s figure): 

Number of men studying at Allen Hall seminary at the start of academic years since 2002: 2010 – 46, 2009 – 45, 2008 – 43, 2007 – 40, 2006 – 37, 2005 – 31, 2004 – 32, 2003 – 34, 2002 – 33. 

It’s interesting to compare this with figures from the National Office for Vocations of men entering seminary in England and Wales over the last three decades (although I’m not sure if this means ‘in England and Wales’ or ‘for the dioceses of England and Wales’ – which would include those studying in Spain and Rome). You can see a graph here (scroll down), which shows how from a peak in 1985 (156 entrants), to a trough in 2000 (only 22 entrants), things have been slowly picking up (the average over the last four years has been about 40).

And the global picture is also healthy. The most recent reliable Vatican statistics are from the end of 2008:

The Vatican said the number of Catholics reached 1.166 billion, an increase of 19 million, or 1.7 percent, from the end of 2007. During the same period, Catholics as a percentage of the global population grew from 17.33 percent to 17.4 percent, it said.

The number of priests stood at 409,166, an increase of 1,142 from the end of 2007. Since the year 2000, the Vatican said, the number of priests has increased by nearly 4,000, or about 1 percent.

Looking at the way priests are distributed around the world, it said: 47.1 percent were in Europe, 30 percent in the Americas, 13.2 percent in Asia, 8.7 percent in Africa and 1.2 percent in Oceania.

The number of seminarians around the world rose from 115,919 at the end of 2007 to 117,024 at the end of 2008, an increase of more than 1 percent, it said.

The increase in seminarians varied geographically: Africa showed an increase of 3.6 percent, Asia an increase of 4.4 percent, and Oceania an increase of 6.5 percent, while Europe had a decrease of 4.3 percent and the Americas remained about the same.

There is a good article on the BBC website with interviews with seminarians and former-seminarians, and these comments from Fr Stephen Langridge giving some historical perspective. 

Father Stephen Langridge, chairman of England and Wales’ vocations directors, says there was a boom in the number of vocations in the aftermath of World War II compared with the 1920s. He says there was another rise in men entering seminaries following the visit of Pope John Paul in 1982. Figures from the National Office for Vocations show this peaking at 156 in 1985 before falling to a low of 22 in 2001. But over the past five years numbers have steadied at about 40 per year.

Fr Langridge says England has been used to a relatively high concentration of priests compared to other countries – about one for every 350 parishioners. But the fall in vocations since the 1980s means a priest in a parish may now be responsible for two or three smaller churches.

In an attempt to address the shortfall, in recent years the Church has changed its recruitment strategy. Instead of simply asking people to become priests, they now encourage Catholics to pray and discern what God wants them to do. Marriage is also viewed as a vocation, which helps keep people’s minds open to hear a call to the priesthood instead.

Fr Langridge explains: “That means a youngster who’d always thought about marriage, perhaps in the stillness of their prayer suddenly thinks, ‘perhaps there’s something else.’ So the seed of a priestly vocation is sown in that way.”

However you look at it, there was some kind of bottoming out around 2000; and now, both nationally and internationally, the numbers of those in formation for the priesthood is on the rise. 

These are long term trends. I wonder if there will be a short term ‘Benedict bounce’ in our own country.

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Finland, apparently, is the best country in the world to live in. This is good for Allen Hall, the seminary where I work. Last year we welcomed our first ever Finnish seminarian, from the Diocese of Helsinki. So there is some kind of reflected glory shining about the community. This has to be good for vocations…

Here are some passages from the Newsweek article by Tara A. Lewis:

With such a huge range of nations in the world, the question of whether there is a best place to live seems both simple and elusive. With that idea in mind, NEWSWEEK offers this list of best countries. Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life. And because it’s easier to improve quality of life if you’re tiny and rich like, for example, Finland, the list also accounts for income and size with rankings by subcategories. Like all lists, this one is not perfect, but it offers surprising and fascinating answers and plenty of insight into which country is healthiest, why Scandinavian nations always come out on top, and why the title of best country has more than one winner.

Despite the long winter, Finland is a pretty great place to be—the best, actually. It ranked the highest overall and also comes in as the best small country, the best high-income country, and the best country for education. Its students scored first in science and second in both reading and math in the 2006 (the most recent one for which data are available) Program for International Student Assessment, a test of 15-year-olds’ education skills by the OECD. Finland’s schoolkids enjoy a laid-back and inclusive learning environment where shoes are optional, all teachers have master’s degrees, and extra help is the norm: every year about one in three students gets individual time with a tutor.

With a relatively low unemployment rate—5.6 percent in 2009—and an economy that’s one of the healthiest even during the global recession, Australia has a lot more to offer than just beaches and Hugh Jackman. In the overall index, Australia ranks fourth. In the other categories for medium-size countries, it claims the top spot for political environment and ties Spain for best health care. With its high standard of living, safe cities, sunny climate, and outdoorsy citizens, Australia also has the best quality of life among medium-size countries.

The innovative country that brought the world sushi, Nintendo, and the Kyoto Protocol is also the one with the most healthy citizens. The average person in Japan lives to the age of 82; the average woman lives to be nearly 86. (Japanese women are the longest-living women in the world.) What explains their longevity? No one knows for sure, but it’s likely a combination of preventive medicine, diet, health education, high standard of living during old age, and universal health care. Japan also ranks first among large countries in education and fourth in quality of life.

And Albania gets an honourable mention:

Albania rarely makes headlines and seems an unlikely model for other countries, but this new democracy actually outperforms all other low-income countries. Among the nations in its category, it consistently ranks highest in education, health, and quality of life. Nearly 99 percent of Albanians are literate. Despite being a citizen of one of the poorest countries in Europe, the average Albanian can expect to live to be 78, the average Albanian woman to be 81—a pretty good statistic, considering that the average citizen of wealthy Germany will live only until age 79.

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