The rector of the historic Royal English College of St Alban in the Spanish city of Valladolid says the life-lessons learned during the coronavirus crisis will prove invaluable to the priestly formation of its students.
Seminarians have been evacuated from Spain's oldest English institution for the first time since World War II, returning to their home parishes in England, Wales, Ireland and Norway.
Like wartime rector Monsignor Edwin Henson, Canon Paul and vice-rector Father Damian Cassidy O.Carm. have stayed behind at the 16th-century college, which was established to train priests for the English and Welsh mission during penal times after the Reformation.
Together with other formation staff they will continue to lead the 11 seminarians in online studies, but Canon Paul says their human experiences during these unprecedented times will be every bit as important.
"The fact that the men have gone home is unfortunate and we know that other seminaries will have much bigger academic problems to sort out," he said.
"However, formation continues for all seminarians because life continues. This is an extraordinary situation which is going to form them. They're a good group and we know they will rise to that challenge."
During their time in north-west Spain the men were undertaking the "propaedeutic" or foundation year, an essential foundation for all that will follow in their formation.
"The propaedeutic year here is all about seminarians' vision of the priesthood and what they imagine the Church is for.
"Our men are understandably concerned about how their formal studies will be affected, but it's important to remember that academic work is only one aspect of the formation of priests.
"The Church says being a genuinely good member of the human family must come before all other considerations for a prospective priest. The joys, sorrows and suffering of that human family are also the joys, sorrows and suffering of the Church and we priests are called to be in the thick of things doing all we can to help.
"This situation we all find ourselves in affects everything and our students will need to have the wisdom and grace to make living through it a fundamental element of their formation.
"The whole Church is working to find ways of ministering adequately in this situation. The very fact that this crisis means people can't come to Mass raises fundamental questions about our image of ministry within the Church.
"Our seminarians are learning life-changing lessons alongside the priests and people of God they are with, as we all rise to the challenges presented by isolation "
The seminarians are aged 18 to 57 and come from a wide range of backgrounds - one has been in the military and another worked for the Irish government, while the majority have come from teaching or directly from education.
"The government started shutting all Spain's schools and universities just before the full lockdown and we decided we wanted to get the men home before they closed the borders," said Hull-born Canon Paul, a priest of the Diocese of Middlesbrough.
"We gathered them together and said, 'Although this isn't what any of us expected, the situations you're returning to are now going to become part of your formation. This is what we're being asked to live through. Keep your studies up online, but we expect you to do what you can in your local church as well.'
"Most of our men have been helping in parishes where there are so many new opportunities, such as streaming services and supporting people via social media and the telephone.
"Some have also gone through a period of isolation - and that experience can also tell you a lot about yourself in the context of discerning a vocation.
"All of the traditional ways seminarians work in parishes are out of the window so they're having to find new ways to embrace the fullness of what ministry is. Not just providing services to which people may or may not come, but being genuinely missionary disciples.
"Formation for the priesthood comes in three parts - all of your life up until seminary, the years within seminary and everything after ordination. So the seminary years are the shortest part but they are the ones we tend to focus on."
Canon Paul and Father Damian have remained behind at the stunning college, which has been home to the statue of Our Lady Vulnerata since 1600 and numbers among its alumni 23 martyrs, including six saints.
"We guessed we were going to be stuck on one side or the other of restrictions and decided to stay here because we didn't know if the building might be needed for people who were ill or homeless," said Canon Paul.
"So far that hasn't happened but we're helping out in the city as far as possible. We also felt it was important there was somebody still in the college so that we could bring the lads back as quickly as we can when this is over."
The college has donated some of the money that would have been invested in the students to Catholic charity Caritas.
"They're doing great work in the city, providing food for families while the schools are closed, helping house and feed the homeless, running food banks and delivering food parcels and vouchers," said Canon Paul.
The two priests have been celebrating Mass together in the college chapel every day but on Easter Sunday they held a special service outside in their enclosed gardens in what was a very moving celebration for local people, who have been locked down since March 14.
"The college is overlooked by flats, so at least our neighbours were able to join in with us from their balconies on Easter Day," said Canon Paul.
Visit www.sanalbano.org for more information about the college.
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