I write this week's Heraldiary within a few hours of flying off for my annual vigil to Rome. I am taking with me what is probably the ideal companion for a visit there this particular year, namely the 1945 Catholic Year Book published for Her Majesty's Forces.
For along with Forces news it is packed with absorbing features and information about the Eternal City within the context of Holy Years past and present.
An extra copy of the Year Book was kindly sent to me by my good friend, its excellent editor, Major Henry Harris. And one of the best articles is his own, on the subject of "Anglo-Celtic Links with Rome." Even the second Holy Year (1350) produced, it seems, complaints from English pilgrims that they were "being mercilessly robbed by Roman hostel keepers."
Henry Harris is going to Rome himself in July as liaison officer for the joint effort of the English (Catholic) Knights of Malta and a more numerous contingent from the (Anglican) Knights of St John for duties in St Peter's Square. The generous agreement of the latter to take part in this operation brings an appropriate ecumenical note to a Holy Year dedicated to the cause of Reconciliation.
Ii is noble of the gallant Knights to volunteer for such services in a month which usually finds Rome staggering under some of the worst sirocco-blown heat of the year. But nobility is, or should be, second nature to such men as the Knights of Malta, who describe
themselves as a corps 'retire.
I myself, a great admirer of theirs, was amazed to be told the other day that their elitism even forbade them from admitting any Catholic with Jewish blood into their ranks. No Knight of Malta I have questioned was able to confirm or deny this piece of information.
Let's hope it turns out to be untrue, or, if true, susceptible of rectification during this Holy Year of Reconciliation in which the Knights of Malta are taking so prominent a part (not forgetting that the whole concept of a Holy Year of Forgiveness is Judaic in its origin).
Congratulations and thanks, meanwhile, for Henry Harris's excellent production.
This week's extensive attention in the Catholic Herald to the all-important question of vocations may not suit all tastes or all opinions.
Someone always feels left out, or it is frequently urged that disproportionate space is given to certain kinds of vocations; that men arc favoured over women; that seculars are preferred to "religious", etc.
The latter criticism, in tact, may result from an effort to ask and answer specific questions for those interested in the life of the nun or the "regular" priest.
One aspect of all this is the presupposition that the secular's vital role as front-line pastor to God's flock is too easily taken for granted. For
tunately, however, we have moved a long way from the less imaginative days when those concerned with selling Catholic papers thought a couple of "big names" among the contributors to a "vocations number" were more important than some thoughtful and intelligent comment (by those who really know what it is all about) on the subject of vocations dt its deepest spiritual and psychological levels.
Most of us, however, have now grown up; and nuns, monks, seculars, teachers, students, and others now talk more realistically than ever about their dedication to a special way of life. My own recent visits to two major seminaries have in fact, led me to believe that a terrible lot of nonsense is being talked about vocations to the secular priesthood.
For one thing, people are still obsessed with numbers and statistics, while refusing to take the steps necessary to supplement falling quantity by ingenuity and qualitative counteraction.
My visits to Ushaw in the North and Wonersh in the South, have, on the other hand, produced considerable optimism. The seminarians are well aware of the weaknesses and dangers.
They are being trained to meet, a new situation, an emergency and an everchanging pattern; not, as in the past, a cosy and largely static pastoral scene, any seismic quivers within which were looked at in terror by some of the parish priests of old. While at Ushaw I went with one of the priests on his visit to some old people in the neighbouring mining village of Langley Park.
Such visits had, it was evident, become a new and welcome feature of life around Ushaw, among non-Catholics as well as Catholics. And there was great enthusiasm among the seminarians for such extracurricular work in all the many forms it takes.
While at Wonersh, I had a long and heartening talk with my old and very good friend Mgr Jim McConnon, the Rector. The pattern of reality and enthusiasm was no less apparent at Wonersh than at Ushaw.
The Rector felt that if he were to try, in a single sentence, to sum up the main incentive for young men to come forward today for the secular priesthood, he would say that it lay in the degree to which it was observable that priests already ordained were happy in their work.
Perhaps all aspiring priests should spend half an hour with Mgr McConnon. But please don't rush to ring up Wonersh for an appointment. Fr Jim will not thank me if this is taken to imply an indiscriminate invitation.
A very popular Chicago priest I knew well was a positive magnet for vocation-inquirers. He once told me he was tempted to tell those whom he met: "Don't call me; the Lord will call you first."