By Fr. MICHAEL RICHARDS
THE New Year will see the four hundredth anniversary of the English College at Douai, which continued the work of the universities in this country for educating Catholic clergy. It carried into effect the provisions of the Council of Trent, and set a pattern for seminaries in other parts of Europe.
And it must be remembered that the Council itself was influenced by the reforming ideas in the field of clerical training of men like Cardinal Pole, so that both the Council and the new College owed a debt to the fresh ideas which had been put into effect in England, and in Cambridge in particular, before the break with Rome.
In the mind of Cardinal William Allen, the college which scholars from Oxford and Cambridge brought into being at Douai, as a constituent part of the new university in that town, was to be a place where the academic interests and standards of the English were to be maintained and where men in doubt over religious truth might come to study, as well as being a training school for missionary priests.
Meeting a crisis
The history of the Catholic Church in England offers no justification for a narrowly technical or professional approach to the education of the clergy. Those who look back, next year, to 1568, will find there every reason and inspiration for boldness in changing our educational, pastoral and missionary methods to meet the needs of the time.
We are once again reshaping our institutions under the impulse of a General Council of the Church; and while the Council has given us general guidelines for the fresh changes, we have to think also in terms of meeting a new crisis of faith in our own local society.
One of the troubles with the Church in this country is our having enough tradition to treasure it and want to preserve it, and not enough to give us the strength to change what now needs changing. We may, if we are not careful, look at our recusant past as an excuse for holding on to old familiar ways.
But in 1568 it was Allen and his friends who were in many ways the innovators, and those who stayed behind in the national church who were the conservatives. The best way of celebrating the memory of Douai next year will he a new charter for our seminaries.
This is, in fact, already on the way. Much of the criticism heard over the last few years has been self-criticism, and moves are at this moment being made not only in the way of implementing the general directives of Vatican II, but also in the direction of adapting teaching methods, relating the seminaries to local universities, freshening up the study programme and bringing in lecturers from outside.
New sense of purpose
Students for ordination are being made more aware of contemporary thought, of other Christian traditions, and of the various agencies working for the welfare of the community as a whole, with which they will collaborate in carrying out their ministry.
All this is excellent. The move in the direction of the universities is probably the most important step of all. This was begun in the nineteenth century, but has suffered a disastrous eclipse for about seventy years.
The variety of solutions now being worked out in our seminaries, as well as the fact that changes are rapid at present, makes it difficult to give a great deal of detailed information about the present situation. Each seminary would have to provide a separate report on what is being done.
But the overriding need is the recovery in all of them of a fresh missionary impulse which would fill the whole Church with a new sense of purpose in this country and which would make many more young men feel that it is worth while giving their lives to the service of the Gospel.
If the last phrase has a somewhat old-fashioned ring, that may be an indication of our present-day neglect of essentials when we think about what is involved in being a priest. Every Catholic. has the responsibility of making Christ known to his neighbours, and his acceptance of a share in the life of the Church makes him stand out amongst others as a living, personal expression of Christian truth.
And men have at all times been called by God to give the whole of their energies exclusively to the mission of the Church. God chooses men and sets them aside solely for the purpose of preaching His Word, guiding the life of the Christian community and leading humanity back to Him in worship.
The way in which the clergy are organized and function within the work of the Church has varied in the past and will alter in the future. But the fact that there is a group of men with this responsibility began with the work of Christ Himself when He inaugurated the New Covenant, and continues by His explicit calling. Recruitment into the clergy does not depend upon any selections we make, but upon a call made by God. Anti-clericalism within the Church tends to forget this. No true priest puts himself where he is. Only a sense of divine obligation can make a man into a priest, and nothing short of that would ever keep any of us where we are.
Whatever may be the case in countries where the Church is taken for granted as part of the normal order of things (and is there such a country these days?), in this country conviction has to be pretty strong before a man will head for ordination, And that conviction consists not only in believing that other men can best be served by bringing them to the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ — all Catholics believe that in their heart of hearts—but in believing that God has given us special responsibility for doing nothing else but that.
God's Word must be spoken to men, and if it is to be spoken we have to involve ourselves in standing before the world as meaningless and useless figures in the eyes of those who have no faith. It is no good justifying the existence of the clergy by some particular social contribution we may be considered to make; if Christ is not our God, then we are empty men.
This is the crisis facing the ministry in English Christianity today. All Christian bodies are finding that men fall away after or before ordination because they feel they have no place in society. But that means that the way is open for us to hear more insistently and more clearly the unique saving Word of God. There are fewer subordinate considerations to sustain us. The one essential consideration, always present, remains.
God's summons does not change. He still speaks through his prophets. We have plenty of new ideas, fresh thoughts about how to organize ourselves, theologies galore; but men are what we need most, men who will answer God's call and become, exclusively, living signs of His presence.
Those who are already committed can and must do their best to make new plans and put them into effect. But the future of the Church depends in the last resort upon how many will take the plunge today. They will have to put up with all sorts of frustrations on the human level: the aggiornamento will not come overnight.
But it is no good trying to strike a bargain with God. The Church will be rebuilt if we have the men; the most we can do at present, and are doing, is to make ready for the rising of the tide.