Our 2020 Propaedeutic Seminary Course began in the normal way, with our plans and calendar now well-worked out and following the pattern which has developed over the past few years.
Eight men came from various parts of Scotland and Ireland to begin their journey in priestly formation as normal – four from Scotland (from the dioceses of Paisley and St Andrews & Edinburgh) and four from around Ireland (from the dioceses of Derry, Armagh and Waterford & Lismore).
The first weeks were, as usual, given over to building up our preparedness to celebrate the sacred Liturgy together – both the Mass and the Divine Office – in understanding and musical expression, and to introducing themes in Priestly Formation, Spirituality and Scripture. We were, as always, blessed with visits from priests and others from Scotland to assist with some of these topics, as well as fortunate to have the assistance of Fr Santiago Guijarro of the Pontifical University here in Salamanca and Fr Jim Walls, the Spiritual Director of our sister seminary, the Pontifical Scots College in Rome.
As often in our first month or so, our students are offered training in Safeguarding and related topics. Tina Campbell, the director of the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service visited us to lead our men through these inportant subjects. Before she began, however, she joined our group as they finished their first Spirituality couses with a pilgrimage and visit to Ávila to follow in the footsteps of St Teresa, whose famous work on prayer “The Interior Castle” they were also studying with Fr Stuart, our own Spiritual Director.
In later February, we joined our “cousins” at the Royal English College in Valladolid for a few days of input, prayer and comradeship, the former focussing on faith formation, catechesis and models drawn from RCIA.
Coronavirus and the Course
By early March, however, it was becoming clear that the coronavirus was beginning to pose a threat in Europe, and, in fact, the College in Rome, faced with the explosion in cases in Italy, had decided to send its students home for safety by the 4th March. Things seemed at first “quieter” in Spain, but within a week or so, things had escalated and the decision was taken to send our group home on Friday 13th March. The very same day, the Spanish government announced a “State of Emergency”, imposing a national lockdown from Saturday 14th. At least in the short term, the course was suspended.
Over time, however, it became clear that the lockdown was no temporary affair. Rather, it became clear that, if the seminarians were to have any kind of formation, it would have to happen remotely, the more so as Scotland and Ireland both also entered into full-scale lockdowns in the following weeks. From late March, therefore, the students had classes online, via Zoom each day, more or less following the calendar previously in place. We joined together each day for Evening Prayer, while Spiritual Direction continued to be available to them online as well. Sunday Mass from the College was streamed via Facebook for those who needed or wanted to join in with us too. One or two had been fortunate enough to have been attached to parishes during that time, and were able, therefore, to attend Mass each day.
Classes, a “mock exam”, essay submission and the regular prayer contacts and devotions ensured that we were not entirely disconnected and that some level of formation was possible (even if not the rich experience of community life and prayer which we would normally hope for). As things seemed to settle in the summer, we invited the group back to Salamanca for a week of reflection and relaxation (with all kinds of now-predictable Covid-19 measures in place including testing, masking and social distancing) in order to have some time to be together and to pack up their belongings, left behind in the quick departure in March) before heading on to major seminary in September.