BY DAVID V BARRETT
GREYFRIARS Hall at Oxford has closed despite an extraordinary intervention by a top Vatican official to save it.
Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation responsible for examining Greyfriars Hall, wrote to the chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten, and his vice-chancellor Dr John Hood asking them to put a hold on the imminent return of the licence for Greyfriars to Oxford University, the move that would formally close the Hall.
Cardinal Rode is prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which is responsible for all religious orders and secular institutes in the Church.
The announcement of the closure of Greyfriars was made in October by Fr James Bonor, minister provincial of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in England, which runs and subsidises the Hall.
One of the reasons given for its closure was the fear that an "increasing financial burden" would be "to the detriment of other areas of our ministry in the United Kingdom".
Mother was a shortage of staff. With just 32 friars remaining in the whole of the English province, and only 26 of those in ministry, the order had to hire lay lecturers.
Barry Hudd, spokesman for the order, declined to comment on Cardinal Rode's letter beyond saying: "We're not party to this correspondence at all. We don't comment on leaked letters. But it's obvious that the Congregation has been misinformed."
Fellows of Greyfriars Hall, who claim they were not consulted about the closure. put forward a rescue package in May. They proposed that the Capuchin Order retain the licence and the legal title to the Hall as trustees, but that a management committee, formed by Fellows and lecturers. should take over the day-to-day management of the Hall and be responsible for its finances.
Appeals against the closure came from Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, whose diocese includes Oxford, and Archbishop Faustino Muftoz, papal nuncio to Britain.
Archbishop Mutioz reportedly said in May that the closure of Greyfriars "would be madness".
In his letter to Lord Patten, a former Cabinet minister, Cardinal Rode said: "The Holy See would be deeply grate ful to the authorities at the University of Oxford were they to assist in these latter stages of the investigation by postponing the arrangement whereby the licence for Greyfriars is to be returned to Oxford University imminently."
He said that the postponement would give his Congregation and the minister general of the Capuchin Order an opportunity to conclude the inquiry requested by the bishops of Westminster and Birmingham and the papal nuncio.
Fr Gareth Jones, canonical adviser to the Fellows and lecturers at Greyfriars, issued a statement welcoming the cardinal's intervention.
He said they were deeply grateful to the archbishops for "championing the request of the Fellows and lecturers that other alternatives be examined prior to implementing Fr James Bonor's decision to close Greyfriars. The Fellows and lecturers hope that these discussions in Rome will prove fruitful for the future of Greyfriars Oxford."
But Mr Hudd told The Catholic Herald: "The Order is not in a position to cede to the request of the Fellows. The university made it perfectly clear that the licence was not transferable. There was nothing else that we could do. The Fellows couldn't preserve Greyfriars Hall, but they are perfectly at liberty to set up a new college."
Alasdair MacDonald, private secretary to the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, confirmed that he replied to Cardinal Rode on August 1, saying that "for all intents and purposes the licence has been surrendered".
Asked about the plan of the Fellows and lecturers to save Greyfriars, he said: "It didn't seem to be a practicable solution."
Greyfriars Hall was one of seven permanent private halls at Oxford, religious halls run by Christian denominations and licensed by the university to matriculate students. Others include Blackfriars, run by the Dominicans, Campion Hall, run by the Society of Jesus. and St Benet's Hall, which is affiliated to Ampleforth Abbey.
Following the closure of Greyfriars its students — around 50 undergraduates studying theology, English, law. history and Classics — will be transferred to Regent's Park College, a Baptist permanent private hall.
Greyfriars Hall celebrated its 50th anniversary in its present form last year. However, it was founded in 1224 as a Franciscan house of studies, and existed until the suppression of the monasteries and religious orders in 1538.