Serving for the Pope
In October last year you may remember the buzz around the build up to the canonisation of John Henry Newman. We had suspected that the English College would be asked to provide servers for the occasion and were excited when this was confirmed. Fr Rector offered Toby Duckworth and I first refusal, but of course we both jumped at the chance. Upon presenting ourselves for rehearsal to Mgr Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, I was chosen to be one of the four closest to Pope Francis during the canonisation mass itself. I was the only member from the VEC among these four and yet little did the monsignor know that I am from Newman’s home Archdiocese of Birmingham. God had indeed blessed me enormously.
It was my job to carry the Pope’s pastoral staff. It turned out to be Pope Benedict’s crosier that was used, as a nod to the devotion of the pope emeritus to Cardinal Newman. The next morning, after waving our special tickets to pass by the Swiss Guard, we entered St Peter’s basilica and assembled under Michelangelo’s Pietà, behind the bulletproof glass, in order to meet the Pope beforehand. Without warning the Holy Father suddenly appeared through a side passage not open to the public and began shaking our hands one by one. I decided to make the most of my few seconds with the Holy Father and leant in to whisper to him (in Italian) my appreciation for Evangelii Gaudium – the papal document that’s most impacted my formation. I shall never forget the warm smile I received back.
As we processed out into St Peter’s square, I could not believe I was actually involved in all this. The October Italian sun was still incredibly strong and seemed to bounce off the stone beneath our feet, creating a blinding effect. From my seat next to the Pope’s dais I could see Prince Charles looking on and remembered that I couldn’t immediately return home after the mass since the future king was due to visit our own Newman display, hosted by the college archivist. Mgr Marini had special signals for us in case we missed our cue to come forward but the four of us managed well enough. Standing beside the Supreme Pontiff as he sat ex cathedra pronouncing a local priest of ours a saint of the universal Church is something that shall remain with me forever. I was surprised by my lack of nerves and thanked God for the peace and joy of the event. That evening, those of us in Rome from this diocese celebrated by dining out and Toby, myself and Fr Ryan Service met Deacon Jack Sullivan who had been cured of a debilitating spinal problem by the intercession of Cardinal Newman. This provided the second miracle needed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to present Cardinal Newman to Pope Francis as a candidate for canonisation. Deacon Jack carried a relic of Newman’s on his person and blessed us each with it as the sun set on a truly remarkable day.
As amazing as life in Rome can be, it has been quite unique to return to the diocese, and particularly to Giffard House, and continue with seminary from afar. Helping Fr Mark in Eastertide under lockdown and forging the way forward as the Church reckons with this time of pandemic has been a parish experience unlike any other. It has been much more meaningful than if my college community simply quarantined in Italy. This has, however, also meant great changes to the ordinary customs for those of us at each specific stage of formation. I am delighted that Archbishop Bernard agreed under the circumstances to delegate the conferral of my first ministry to Fr Mark (who as a former rector has experience with all this).
So, what are these ‘ministries’ all about? The seminary formation process requires each seminarian to advance towards ordination receiving greater and greater responsibility as a prospective future priest. The current structure was finalised by Pope St Paul VI in 1973. From the second year onwards, each year culminates in the reception of a ‘ministry’ that underscores a particular aspect of ministerial priesthood. One is successively instituted as a Lector; Acolyte; Candidate; Deacon; and finally, Priest. During the second semester we take time out of our usual schedule to go away on retreat and pray about the forthcoming ministry, and have weekly pastoral classes designed to broaden our awareness of what the Church is asking of us at any given stage. This is all part of the main objective of forming solid patterns of priestly living.
Lectorate focuses on the Word of God and what it means to proclaim the Scriptures. The Bible is not a collection of dead letters, but the living Word of God as relevant in our age as in any other. In the book of Hebrews we read, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). When a lector reads from the lectionary at mass, therefore, it helps to bear in mind that Christ is being announced to the people of God. When I began seminary (in Valladolid, Spain) I did not much like reading in front of my peers. Steadily, however, I began to deepen my awareness that it is Christ, the Word of God, being proclaimed and not about me at all. In Rome we have had voice coaching sessions that has also developed the skills necessary for communicating the intention of a passage. All this directs us towards one day proclaiming the Gospel, of course. Ultimately, this requires one to be sensitive to the workings of the Spirit who may be speaking a deep word through the lips of the priest to members of the congregation. It is an awesome responsibility and one in which I have felt myself grow closer to the Lord within His call. Let us proclaim this Good News boldly and joyfully.
Article by David Bench
The conferral of the Ministry of Lector will take place during our Mass on Sunday 12th July. We hope you will be able to watch and pray along with us online.
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