On Sunday 28th April, seventy members of St Alban’s & The Church on Oakwood’s Catholic congregation visited Oscott College in Sutton Coldfield. For those of you who don’t know, Oscott is one of only three remaining seminaries training men for the priesthood in England & Wales. It came to national prominence in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI visited it during his historic trip to Britain.
Our coach brought us to the beautiful grounds of the college, with their impressive views over the Birmingham skyline, at 3pm. We were warmly welcomed, along with several other visiting groups, with hot drinks and some seriously delicious cakes. After being formally welcomed by Fr David Oakley, the new Rector of the College, and Judith Champ, the Dean of Studies, we were introduced to our guides for the afternoon, all of them students of the College, though at different stages. Our group was led by Roy Cooper, a fifth year student, ably supported by Phil, Sean, Thomas, Jason, Steven and Jonathan. Of course we were also helped out by our Deacon, John Martin, who is currently studying at the College, and Fr Paul Newman, who is himself a former student of Oscott.
The college was originally founded in 1794 and moved to its present location in 1838. The building was primarily designed by the famous ecclesiastical architect, Augustus Pugin, who was also responsible for designing St Barnabas’ Catholic Cathedral in Nottingham and St Mary’s Catholic Church, Derby.The building retains its old world charm – indeed the Rector commentated that some of our younger visitors could be forgiven for thinking they had arrived at Hogwarts!
One of the highlights of the tour was Pugin’s museum. As an avid collector of all things connected to medieval Church art, he needed somewhere to house his vast array of objects, and the creation of a museum was an ideal solution. Many of the items were acquired on European trips, especially to France, which following the French Revolution saw the closure of many churches and the ready acquisition of historically priceless objects by collectors. Pugin was inspired by the medieval era and committed his life to restoring medieval art to English Catholic churches. For him, this Gothic art came from the “age of faith” when the Church was thriving and he wished to use it to “feed the faith” of 19th century Catholics and beyond. The artifacts that Pugin and others collected teach us much about the faith and its history. The oldest items date from the 13th century, and the collection includes statues of Our Lady and other Saints, illuminated manuscripts, vestments, wooden carvings, alabaster carvings, pilgrims’ souvenir badges, chalices, ciboria, pyxes, monstrances, the casket that housed the bones of St Chad from the Reformation until 1840, and a delightful ‘portable mini Mass kit’ that was used by priests during the Recusant period when Catholics were persecuted – small items being more easily hidden than large ornate ones. Some of the objects are original medieval ones, whilst others were designed by Pugin based on these older styles in order to fulfill his wish of creating a complete “Christian Gothic environment for worship.”
Our next stop was the main library, a room filled with a treasure trove of books about Christian belief and life, sections included works on ‘Cartography,’ ‘ Patristics,’ ‘Church History’ and ‘Numismatics’ – we were clearly not in Derby Central Library! A beautiful stained glass window entitled ‘Our Lady Seat of Wisdom’ looks down over readers. The College houses two other libraries – ‘Spiritual Reading’ and ‘Recuscant.’ The first class resources available to trainee priests reflects one of the four pillars that Oscott aims to develop in its students: intellectual formation; the others being human, spiritual and pastoral formation.
The College is very much a living community, whose prime aim is to equip 21st century priests with the skills they will need in today’s Church. A question and answer session with our student guides revealed that they remain a part of the world and are actively encouraged to keep in contact with family and friends during their training. A typical day begins at 7.15am with Meditation, followed by Morning Prayer, breakfast (cereals midweek but sausages on Sunday!), lectures, Coffee break at 10.15am, Mass at 12.20pm, lunch at 1pm, occasional afternoon lectures, tea break with cakes at 4pm, Evening Prayer in small groups and supper at 7.15pm (though students are free to go out in the evenings and don’t have to eat in college). They have a day off on Wednesdays, and are free to have visitors on Tuesday night through Wednesday or Saturday night through Sunday. Their holidays roughly mirror those of schools.
Currently there are around fifty students training for the priesthood at the College. It takes on average six years to become a priest, though that will depend on the previous experience of each candidate. The first two years concentrate mainly on philosophy and liturgy; in year three theology and Scripture are taught; this is followed by training in the practical side of being a priest e.g. saying Mass, conducting a funeral, administering Confession. There are also classes on ‘how to preach,’ including a public speaking course and interfaith dialogue. Pastoral placements form an important part of the training, giving the trainees hand-on experience of parish life. The students are assessed by means of written and oral exams as well as essays. The College has wi-fi and all students have access to computers. Some of the lecturers live on site and others commute to the College.
We were privileged to hear Steven, a fourth year student from Middlesborough, describe his journey of faith and the struggles he had experienced in accepting his vocation. After getting “cold feet” after three years studying for the priesthood in Rome, and deciding to return to teaching, he was led by an experience on a school trip to Lourdes to reassess his decision to “run away.” A pupil told him he would “make a good priest” and that is what he hopes to be in two years time after completing his studies at Oscott. Please keep Steven in your prayers.
The highlight of the tour for many of us was the Chapel, which is indeed the “heart of the seminary.” It was decorated by Pugin, who was given free rein to develop his full Gothic style. It includes original medieval artifacts woven into new settings, as well as replicas. The impression it leaves on the worshipper is breathtaking. The 17th century choir stalls with their carved heads all showing different expressions, came from Belgium and further seats were recreated in the same style. Pugin had to use his imagination in finding 19th century craftsmen with the necessary skills to bring his imaginings to life – he even roped in metal jelly mould makers! The ornate pulpit was the scene of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s famous “Second Spring” of English Catholicism sermon in July 1852 to the First Provincial Synod of Westminster, following the restoration of the English Catholic hierarchy. The beautiful stained glass window above the Sanctuary depicts Mary flanked by St Catherine of Alexandria, patron Saint of priests, and St Cecilia, Patron of musicians. We were privileged to end our visit to Oscott College by sharing Evening Prayer in the Chapel with the Seminarians.
It was a wonderful experience for members of the Parish to be able to glimpse into the lives and training of our priests, we thank the College for their hospitality and generosity with their time, as well as thanking Deacon John and Fr Paul for arranging our visit.
To see pictures of our visit follow the link.
If you feel called to a religious life, the priesthood or wish to explore the subject further take a look at the Diocesan vocations website: rucalled.com or you may find further useful information at UK Priest.